The April 1981 Brixton Riot (2): The Aftermath, and Defence Campaigns

After years of street crimes and brutality, and despite the infiltration from outside of thousands of paid provocateurs. the Brixton police have finally been taught a short, sharp lesson by the local community. It has been a constant source of amazement to observers just how long the local population have allowed these professional scare-mongers to roam the streets unchecked, harassing and heating up the youth and terrorising the residents.

Over the last three years, there has been a marked increase in the street crime and violence carried out by these so-called ‘protectors’. The local population has stood by helplessly while their children been snatched off the streets by these over by racist and sexist gangs of thugs – kidnapped under the sinister ‘sus’ law which they operate.

At least one recognised public execution * has already been carried out by these murderous thugs’ paramilitary wing, the Special Patrol Group, whilst dozens of unsolved murders, which have happened behind the closed doors of police stations and prisons, are readily attributable to these state-styled stormtroopers and their cronies.

Relative calm returned to the streets on Sunday only after they adopted their by now unfamiliar ploy of following an afternoon of unbridled mayhem with a swift withdrawal at twilight. (Lewisham residents are all too aware of this tactic). But the remarks of one of the thugs ‘guarding’  Stockwell station sums up the measure of their defeat; in a dejected tone he muttered to his mates. ‘The whole world will be laughing at us..’ But he was wrong. The world is not amused at having these gangs of thugs strutting around its street under the guise of law ‘n’order. The world will want to know:

¥ WHO ARE THE SINISTER BRAINS BEHIND THE BRIXTON RIOTS WHO PLANNED AND EXECUTED MASSIVE ACTION AGAINST THE COMMUNITY?

But above all, the question remains:

¥ JUST HOW ARE WE PREPARED TO PUT UP WITH THESE ARROGANT, MARAUDING THUGS WHO ANSWER TO NO-ONE BUT THEMSELVES??”

FROM THE FRONTLINE BRIXTON BULLETIN Monday 13 April 1981

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In the immediate aftermath of the April 11th 1981 Brixton Uprising, while the media teemed with racist nonsense, and Lord Scarman was hired by the government to launch an Inquiry into the events, the most pressing question in the area was supporting the 285 people arrested on the day (though a fair number were nicked and released without charge, mainly as there was no cell space to hold them all. More people were arrested later: between April and July there were some 70 raids on local homes). Interestingly, given the police and press hoohaa about the riot being planned and carried out by outsiders coming into the area, 90% of the arrested proved to be from Brixton; 65 % were Black. Other bare statistics: 50% were under 25. In the end some 18 % were jailed for ‘offences’ arising from the uprising, 17% acquitted.

The Brixton Defence Campaign was formed to organise a political defence of the arrested. It was formed mainly by the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BBWG) and Black People Against State Harassment (BASH). BASH had been launched in 1978, partly as a result of the repeated Special Patrol group invasions of Brixton (see In the Shadow of the SPG).

In its own press statement, the Brixton Defence Campaign stated that it formed to ‘co-ordinate the defence of those arrested during the Brixton Uprising and to support those who continue to be victimised’. The campaign group worked alongside the Brixton Legal Defence Group.

 “The fact that we initiated the Brixton Defence Campaign, took on alot of the leadership, and, as a group, put in most of the work, shows how strong politically Black women had become and how much support there was in the community for the group. Many of the ‘committees’ set up by the brothers in the aftermath of the uprisings had failed. In some cases, the first meetings had ended in chaos. There were all kinds of conflicting interests… We recognised that the police would step up their operations. We also knew that we had to work quickly to counteract the media’s coverage of ‘Black Mobs on the Rampage’ and ‘Black Masses Rioting’, so that people could understand what had really happened.

Anyway, after the failure of the initial public meetings, the women’s group came together to discuss the brief of the campaign. The first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre, and after that it became the base of the campaign. We acted very quickly, using the skills we had to start distributing leaflets, organising more public meetings and producing a regular bulletin. We had two objectives really. The first was the practical matter of getting competent legal representation for the hundreds of people who’d been arrested. And the other was to publicise the police tactics which had led to the uprisings and to alert the community to particular incidents of brutality. We did this by holding street meetings on Railton Road, bringing the issues to the attention of the people. And we co-ordinated with other campaigns and defence committees in other parts of the country so that we could monitor the police operations in our communities outside London.” (from The Heart of the Race, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe)

The Defence Campaign held regular meetings, help the arrested collected evidence for their defence, contacted lawyers, helped defendants and witnesses get connected, collected images to help people.

Viewing Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the cause of the April Riot as a whitewash, aimed at legitimising characterisations of the riots as ‘blameless forces of law and order [battling] mainly black criminals’, the Brixton Defence Campaign called for a boycott of the proceedings. Their position was that any support for or even taking part in the inquiry would alienate the ‘sections of the community we are interested in mobilising’, and thus it ‘must be totally discredited’.

“The Brixton Defence Campaign says Boycott the Scarman Inquiry

The Brixton Defence Campaign calls for a total boycott of the state’s inquiry into the Brixton Uprising of 10-13 April 1981 set up under the chairmanship of Lord Scarman with terms of reference: To inquire urgently into the serious disorders in Brixton on 10-12 April and to report, with the power to make recommendations.
There is no escaping the fact that the Scarman Inquiry, but particularly Phase 1, very seriously prejudices the legal position and therefore endangers the liberty of all defendants yet to be tried.
Lord Scarman has seen fit to divide his inquiry into two phases: Phase I – Examining the ‘immediate causes’ of what happened in Brixton on 10-12 April 1981; Phase II – Assessing the ‘underlying reasons, looking specially at the problems of policing multi-racial areas’.
Why do we say that Phase I is but a deadly weapon aimed at our hearts?
First: Because Lord Scarman himself had positively to agree, that Phase I will ‘prejudice the rights of fair trial to those who have yet to come before the courts’. His promise to take evidence in such a way that individuals will not be named or identified cannot be carried out.
Second: What, it must be asked, are these ‘immediate causes’ into which Scarman is going to investigate so urgently in Phase I. It was the MP for Norwood (John Fraser) who said, quite correctly, that the immediate causes of what happened in Brixton are well understood’.
Third: Instead of looking at the real ‘immediate cause of the Brixton Uprising, Scarman will be seeking to give subtle legitimacy to the totally racist views so dramatically put by Margaret Thatcher – that the Brixton Uprising was simply a confrontation between, on the one hand, fundamentally blameless forces of law and order, and, on the other, mainly black criminals!
The Brixton Defence Campaign is satisfied that Lord Scarman is disposed to be used by the state to provide it with a basis for re-writing the Riot Act and to provide justification for dramatically increasing repressiveness in policing methods which are already massively racist, lawless and brutal as well as substantially uncontrolled. In the past five years there have been repeated requests to the Home Secretary for a public inquiry into police brutality and malpractice. To none of these calls was there a positive response by the state.
There are no benefits to the black community to be derived from Phase II of Lord Scarman’s inquiry. First, it is not aware that Lord Scarman has any expertise in the field of social policy and is not satisfied that even were he to have both the necessary expertise and sympathy that these would be sufficient given the other factors which apply. Second, there are no good reasons to hold that ignorance on the part of the state is a major cause/force determining the present direction of its policies in the field of housing, employment, education, etc. Third, the Campaign is satisfied particularly that where the black communities’ grievances over the racist, brutal, lawless and uncontrolled policing methods used against them are concerned the state has no basis for even claiming to be ignorant. A mountain of evidence has been ‘submitted and ignored.”

The Campaign wrote to organisations and individuals intending to provide evidence to Scarman’s inquiry, warning them against doing so and criticising them for betraying the community. However, some notable Brixton activists, and many community organisations, did co-operate with the enquiry.

There were proposals for an inquiry that could take a more alternative approach.
A joint statement from local organisations – the Brixton Neighbourhood Community Organisation, the Melting Pot Foundation, and Brixton Domino Working Men’s Social Club – claimed that an alternative inquiry that included ‘one or more… Privy Councillors from the Black Commonwealth’ would have ‘allayed the scepticism of many members of the Black Community’.

There was also the fear that anything said in evidence given to Scarman’s inquiry might help incriminate defendants when it came to court cases.

“On the fifteenth day of the Inquiry hearings, 3 July, the Brixton Legal Defence Group notified the Inquiry that application was being made to the High Court for an order to prohibit Lord Scarman from hearing any further evidence or submissions in public or from making public any findings in relation to Phase 1 until the various criminal proceedings pending against the applicants arising from the disorders had been tried. Application was also made to prohibit the Home Secretary from making public any findings in relation to Phase 1 pending conclusion of the criminal
proceedings. On 10 July Mr Justice Webster dismissed the application saying that ‘it has not been established either that the continuance of the Inquiry in public or that the publication of the report which follows is in either case an act calculated to obstruct or interfere with the due course of justice’.”

However, the Brixton Defence Campaign was not without its own contradictions, as the following article recounts (This was published in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, by a group of Brixton anarchists, 1982)

FROM OFFENCE TO DEFENCE TO….?

Where?

Recognising the centrality of black resistance to racism in the uprisings, we describe how such resistance became a larger entry point for our own refusal of mere survival as waged or unwaged workers, as women, etc. Although we have experienced exploitation, harassment and coercion in somewhat different ways than black and Asian people, we came to fight the same battles in the streets against the same enemy – the police. At the same time, we are all too aware that tensions between blacks and whites, men and women, persist after the uprisings.

This section approaches the problem in view of the aftermath of the uprisings. Although a riot can’t continue indefinitely without a general revolutionary upheaval, it can nevertheless contribute to bringing about such a situation. However, so far we have seen our riots followed mostly by repression, isolation and division among those who, for a while, joined together as an insurgent community. How do we get beyond this dead-end cycle?

Just after the July 81 riots, for example, the crowd in a Wolverhampton courtroom almost succeeded in freeing their mates from the dock. However, during the winter, hundreds of people faced prison sentences in the same kind of isolation which prevailed beforehand. Capitalism will continue to defeat us if rebellion remains confined to the warmest months, to special anniversaries or to counter-attacks against only the most blatant police provocations – ultimately leaving the initiative with the state.

With these problems in mind, the article looks at the inability of the Brixton defence groups to sustain the ‘creative moments’ of the revolts, instead expressing a disorganisation and powerlessness which limited the July uprising as much as did the advance in police tactics then. The article makes tentative suggestions for possible new organisational forms for defending the targets of state repression and for generalising the rebellion of the oppositional community. Whenever we do reach a point of confrontation leading to the next uprising, the groundwork could already be laid for taking it beyond defence of ghetto territory, towards transforming the whole of daily life, destroying the rule of capital and the state.

Looking back, it is now apparent that what was absent from last year’s struggles was the development of organisational forms which fully corresponded with the new practices made explicit at the height of the fighting. Certainly there were organizations – the defence committees – but subsequent events have revealed that none of these encouraged the development of the new relations already created. Of course they solidly did the work of obtaining speedy legal assistance for those arrested, issuing information and acting as rallying points, etc. However, by and large they applied stale orthodox models of resistance to the fresh tasks confronting metropolitan proletarians when such models had, to a certain extent, become already superseded by the very events upon which the organisations based themselves.

For what had started out in April as an attack on racist policing developed into an attack on policing as such, on commodity exchange as such and, by implication, on the whole process of production and consumption in capitalist society. Also, the mode of the attack was itself a living critique of the usual mediations by which political parties and trade unions contain and regulate class struggle. Further, it enabled us to break through the usual roles and half-rotted ideologies and, for a brief but ecstatic moment, to transform social relations. Such transformations which remain at the heart of the communist project and which, within the limits of time and space of Brixton, that weekend, became a form of mass practice needed a broad-based and flexible form of organisation in which to bloom. (For example, in times of social upheaval this form has very often been that of general assemblies or councils, soviets. But the organisational forms which arose in Brixton did so on the basis of only partial critiques, only limited visions, seeking to defend those arrested without having to delegitimise the state which was criminalising them in the first place.

Undoubtedly the defence committees’ criticisms of the racist state were expressed more forcefully than previously, but this was largely a difference of degree and did not mark a qualitative shift in oppositional critique or practice. (For example, they might have identified the ways in which the uprising went beyond an attack on racist policing methods, so as to incorporate the knowledge gained into their defence strategies.) Their limitations suggest that, of all the proletarian layers which participated in the fighting, none had a thoroughgoing awareness of the significant changes which had taken place in the composition of the proletarian groupings themselves. So when those of us who took to the streets concretised the latent and embryonic aspects of ourselves shaped by this recomposition of social relations, we were unable to grasp and develop that process collectively. Overtaken by the enormity and rapidity of events, we nevertheless were inspired by the forces unleashed to create practices of struggle in which we found ourselves confronting the now-realised aspects of ourselves. Yet, as in a dream, we did not fully recognise ourselves. Therefore, we fell back upon analyses and their corresponding forms of organization which our very own actions had rendered obsolete. This is understandable insofar as consciousness often lags behind events, especially events of such qualitative rupture.

But what were these ‘new aspects’? In short, the practical unity of black and white proletarians forged in action against both the state and the reign of commodities. There were no cries of ‘black and white unite and fight’ as we were too busy doing exactly that to bother with such sloganising. Moreover, we were not just ‘fighting the state’ but were transforming social relations, making real the communistic project by realising the communistic potential of ourselves, albeit briefly. At that point in the process, the struggle went beyond a physical confrontation with racist policing by (mainly) black youth, even if that had been the detonator and main component of the struggle. However, that step beyond was not reflected in the committees which reproduced fragmented and partial analyses. The temporarily visible, concrete relations receded from consciousness, back into invisibility. After one step forward on the streets, two steps backwards were taken in the committee rooms.

‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things. in creating something which has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.’ -Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

it was at the point when the decisive actions on the streets had broken down many (though not all) of the ideological barriers that keep black and white proletarians in close but different orbits that the whole spectrum of political activists stepped in with their ‘traditional’ analyses. In the heat, speed and confusion of the moment, the regressive aspects of their intervention went un-noticed and prevailed by default.

The first ‘spirit’ that was ‘conjured up’ was the division on colour lines. The quickly-formed Brixton Defence Campaign (BDC) was open only to blacks. While that restriction could be seen as an attempt to curtail the influence of the (predominantly white) party-builders and to exclude possible police agents, its immediate social effect was to divide the streetfighters. Furthermore, the BDC itself immediately divided on class lines between the street youth and the older professionals & politicians on the platform. These differences resulted in one faction of the ‘leadership’ cancelling the public rally called for the following weekend – fearing, no doubt, to lose control of the situation to the streetfighters eagerly anticipating the rally. Falling on an Easter weekend, the rally would have ensured broader participation by local people and also supporters from elsewhere, thereby providing an opportunity to extend the struggle and overcome Brixton’s isolation. As it happened, that weekend – just a few days after the uprising – passed in silence. (The BDC opened itself up to white participants shortly afterwards, but only temporarily.)

These initial divisions by colour and geography from within the proletariat had a ‘domino effect’ as they strengthened – not weakened – the left groups, who now had a fragmented and confused mass to pick over and recruit. Soon there were no less than five defence group s/committees: The BDC included most black people. The Brixton Legal Defence Committee (BLDC), although formed essentially to cover court cases, reflected the involvement of leftist professionals/politicians, mainly Labourites. The Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton came from the Militant Tendency of the Labour Party. South London Workers Against Racism (SOLWAR) was the local branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in another form. Lastly, People Against Police Occupation (PAPO), by far the smallest group, consisted of socialist-feminists, radical gays and libertarians.

The BDC saw the uprising only as a black issue. While it is clearly undeniable that it was police racism which sparked the uprising, and that this was but one more example of the manifold attacks made on black people – economic, legal, social, physical, etc. – it should also be clear that the surge of (mainly black) proletarian anger in response went far beyond the initial objective of attacking racist police. The BDC’s attempt to contain the struggle within a solely ‘black people vs. the racist state’ framework turned out to complement the state’s own strategy of delegitimising any protest outside the scope of a narrowly defined ‘racial discrimination’. It is precisely within such terms that the state, especially its would-be reformers, have attempted to contain the struggle.

Another problem with the BDC’s approach was that it did not take account of differences within ‘the’ black community. As soon as the BDC was formed, the class differences surfaced and persisted as the campaign developed. An explicit proletarian standpoint from the start (which would have included the vast majority of black people anyway) could have avoided the confusion surrounding such issues as the collaboration with Lord Scarman by certain petty-bourgeois black groups and the collaboration with the police by such ‘community leaders’ as Courtnay Laws and Ivan Madray. Also, in order to advance the struggle on the ground, perhaps more faith could have been put in mobilising black proletarians in Brixton than in lobbying Caribbean diplomats.

Of course the BDC, as the biggest of the defence groups, helped the most defendants, and its limitations in no way detract from that achievement. Also, these criticisms should not been seen as a criticism of black autonomy. The ‘multi-racial’ developments of the uprising did not challenge the basis of black autonomy; on the contrary, they reaffirmed the need for autonomous organising by everyone. However, we need to re-think the ambiguity between autonomy and separatism, so that autonomous organisation strengthens everyone’s autonomy from the state rather than facilitating the state’s containment strategies. Perhaps future developments will bring some practical clarification to this delicate area.

What of the other defence groups?

The Brixton Legal Defence Committee made interventions only on the legal level. The most notable was the attempt to halt the Scarman Inquiry on the grounds that the proceedings endangered defendants in certain court cases. As there was no chance that the legal establishment would stop Scarman from performing his liberal exhibitionism, the Committee’s attempt failed.

The Militant Tendency, wearing the ‘costume’ of the Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton. used the ‘borrowed language’ familiar to most of us by now. According to them, the uprising was due to the policies of Thatcherism and ‘uncontrolled’ policing; therefore, more public expenditure on social welfare programmes, the disbandment of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) and police ‘accountability’ would somehow keep the lid on. This committee, too, assisted defendants financially. Also, it was the only committee willing to sink ideological differences by offering at least some assistance to the arrested anarchist Patrizia Giambi – so far the sole explicitly ‘political’ case to result in conviction from the uprising.

SOLWAR applied to the situation a class analysis containing a critique of racism (both in the state and in the labour movement). They called for resistance to the Police raids which happened after the fighting, with the resistance to be carried out by ‘militia’ similar to their anti-fascist squads in Fast London, but that proposal was not implemented. SOLWAR also helped defendants financially and – with the slogan ‘Police in the Dock’ – assisted some black families to prosecute police for assault.

Like the proposal to resist police raids, this was another attempt to take the struggle onto the offensive against the police.

PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. Like SOLWAR, they too sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people.

Even this brief look at the approaches of the defence committees & groups gives us a glimpse of the potential which a general assembly could have had, especially one which recognised the historically new aspects of the uprising. But what we had instead was a proliferation of groups which precluded open political debate about the nature of the uprising and the formation of a collective ‘ strategy. These divisions reflected not only the divergences on the local political scene but also an (unconscious) acceptance of the state’s divide-and-rule tactics.

In the uprising the state’s tactics were made explicit in the ravings of Commissioner McNee (and in July in those of Kenneth Oxford and James Anderton), who attributed the uprising to ‘black hooligans’ (common criminals) and to ‘white anarchist agitators’ (political criminals). That political line was followed through into the courtroom and can be seen in the more or less straightforward criminalisation of black youth and the more overtly political criminalisation of, for example, the anarchists Patrizia Giambi in Brixton and Simon Los in Nottingham (For the charge of ‘threatening behaviour’, Patricia Giambi was sent to prison for a month and almost deported. In her appeal against the court’s recommendation for deportation, it became even more obvious that the police wanted to see her deported because she was an anarchist, whose deportation would provide prima facie ‘evidence’ for their conspiracy theory of the riots. In Nottingham, Simon Los was sent to prison for 3 years for ‘inciting to riot’, i.e. putting anarchist leaflets into people’s mailboxes.) Of course, the state is trying to have it both ways with the Bradford 12 conspiracy charges *, which themselves reflect the state’s growing fear of organised black proletarians.

The most negative effects of the insurgents’ fragmentation were the competition between defence groups and the attempts by some of them to appropriate the struggle as their own. An example: When the Scarman Inquiry opened at Lambeth Town Hall, the BDC called for a picket. This call was supported by all the other defence groups. However, SOLWAR brought along their own banner and, when asked by BDC stewards to take it down, refused. This refusal was heavily criticised by the other pickets and was seen as RCP vanguardism. But it can be seen another way as the BDC attempting to limit the struggle and subordinate other initiatives, such confusion was due to the lack of prior debate. The lack of open political debate meant that, whatever differences in political approach did exist (and such differences are always bound to exist), they got expressed in terms of crude competition. Thus it appeared that such competitive divisions were consciously desired, or at least self-perpetuating, rather than resulting from everyone’s earlier failure to come together for mutual clarification and collective decision-making. In effect, then, the BDC, which was seen as the ‘authoritative’ defence group, became the superior arbiter and sole source of legitimacy for initiatives. (Hence the absence of the BDC as the BDC from the PAPO picket of the police station.)

A second example: It became impossible to discern the pattern of, much less to resist collectively, the police raids which continued for months after April, largely because there was no common reference point for information about them. The information which was gathered was not made freely available. During the raids in June, people seemed gripped by a sense of powerlessness which in turn heightened the feeling of fragmentation and isolation. So, when there was street fighting again in July, it was not simply the fact of the police being better armed (than in April) which enabled them to clear the streets so easily. The events in July were an example of one way in which the proliferation of defence groups had compounded the decline of the April solidarity.

It is worth dwelling further on the differences between the July fighting and that in April. The main difference was that in April the police were taken by surprise. That gave streetfighters the time and space in which to gather for large-scale confrontations, which became the material basis for the unity. By contrast, in July there were uprisings taking place throughout the country but the police everywhere were better prepared – with riot helmets, short & light shields for extra mobility, the possible backing of water cannon and CS gas (used in Liverpool) and the political instruction to ‘go on the offensive’. In Brixton their chief tactic was mobile squads racing around attacking any semblance of group formations. That tactic kept those of us on the street running around in circles and prevented any large-scale gathering. Hit-and-run tactics were the only feasible form of resistance. (As used in St. Paul’s and Toxteth in early 1982.) There was little scope for united collective action like that of April. And now that police riot squads have been formed in all the large Metropolitan Police divisions with the back-up of gas and water cannon, the tactics of ‘isolate and disperse’ will again undoubtedly be the order of the day should there be any more streetfighting. Should this prove to be the case and should they succeed, then it may be even more difficult to recover the ground lost since April.

But, to return to the proliferation of defence groups – how did this come about?

Of all the social changes of the 1970s, one of the most significant was the growth of black people as an organised force. Black groups organised themselves around opposing the many attacks from the state and racist groups. A combination of the two – the Nationality Bill and the New Cross Massacre – meant that, at the time that the police implemented their ‘Operation Swamp ’81’, black people were on a combative footing and in no mood to tolerate yet more provocations. But this process goes back to the period immediately after World War 2  and is connected with other relevant historical developments.

The changing needs for new types of labour power by post-war capital gave rise to two trends. Black people were invited over here as a source of cheap unorganised labour at a time of a shortage. Also, with the decline of traditional industries (coal, steel, ship-building and so on) and the growth of service and light industries, women – another source of cheap, unorganised labour – became a larger part of the labour force and structurally more integrated into it. (For a concise account of this, see lrene Bruegel, ‘Women as a Reserve Army of Labour’, in Feminist Review no.3.    Also, A. Sivanandan, ‘From Resistance to Rebellion’, in Race and Class, Autumn/Winter 1981 and his ‘Race, Class and the State: The Black Experience in Britain’, Race and Class pamphlet no. 1. See also the series in Race Today by Darcus Howe, ‘Bobby to Babylon’.)

Both groups also received a large impetus from the liberation movements of the late 1960s – the Black Power Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Linked with appositional developments of the late 1960s was the growth of a whole range of revolutionary groupings, from Trotskyists through to anarchists. Also, since the mid-1970s there has been a growing reserve army of young people, black and white, excluded from the labour process. Unlike the reserve army of the 1930s, however, there is a tendency to turn its exclusion into a rejection of normal ‘success’ models. Many of these people feel themselves to have little stake in reforming capitalism and have proven themselves willing to defend physically any encroachment upon their ‘non-work oriented’ subcultures.

All this reflects changes in the composition and self-perception of the working class. Such changes are inevitable given that classes are not fixed groups but social processes. For example, the large expansion of office jobs has ‘bourgeoisified’ traditionally working class people and has ‘proletarianised’ traditionally middle class people. The expansion of higher education has given some of the working class a passport into the middle class. Black people (especially first-generation immigrants) have been doing menial jobs while a certain portion of the white working class becomes upwardly mobile. The welfare state – designed to individualise class conflict and isolate people – has been nevertheless used by refusers of wage-labour to gain time and space in which to move outside the wage-slave cycle and develop their opposition through new practices. And so on.

What all the above-mentioned groups have in common is that they organise and express themselves outside of the usual channels of political parties and trade unions (even if the organised left tends to channel people back in again). To a greater or lesser extent they are all marginalised politically, socially or economically – and, in the case of most women and blacks, in all three spheres. This is due mainly to objective conditions, some of which – for example, the structured individualisation of officially ‘unemployed’ people – were challenged by last year’s uprisings.

But the forces at work are not only objective. In such a world, people who are antagonistic to the norms are only too pleased to find like-minded people. Such groups become the reference points for identity, safety and support. Gradually, people come to accept their marginalisation, and this ‘self-ghettoisation’ cuts off people from other oppositional groups, and not merely on ‘Ideological’ grounds. That is, there is a certain degree of (unconscious) complicity with the tactics of divide-and-rule. Friction occurs among groups as each either explicitly or implicitly claims to hold the key to real social transformation, to be the subject of history. (Isolation and vanguardism are often mutually inclusive.)

So, despite changes in social relations that had taken place in the streetfighting, when the task of organising presented itself there was an in-built tendency for people to revert ‘automatically’ to the roles they knew best, thus reproducing the old divisions. However,

‘Since the Leninist model assumes a vanguard expressing the total class interest, it bears no relation to the reality we have been describing, where no one section of the class can express the experience and interest and pursue the struggle for any other section. The formal organisational expression of a general class strategy does not yet anywhere exist.’ (Selma James, ‘Sex, Race and Class’, Falling Wall Press/Race Today, 1975.)

Since those words were written almost a decade ago, this problem has become even more pressing. Yet one major attempt elsewhere at its resolution – the ‘Beyond the Fragments’ conferences – is doomed to failure. ‘Beyond the Fragments’ failed not just because it attempted to create unity only on an ideological level, but also because it sought to ‘breathe life into some Frankenstein monster constructed of the decaying remains of the political movements of the last two decades’. (Beyond the Fragments Or Beyond the Left, in Authority, 1980)

That is, it failed to recognise what is new in the general proletarian refusals of this society and especially the role of the left in domesticating such refusals. What is needed most is an attempt at unity on a practical and continuous basis, a basis which recognises the new and breaks through old ideological barriers. (Last year’s uprisings could well provide the beginnings of such a basis.)

But these are not the sole reasons for the proliferation of defence groups and partial analyses. The spontaneous nature and the scope of the actions took most people by surprise. Before events and their potential could be fully grasped, the moment had passed, the state had regained control of the streets, and the resulting ‘vacuum’ favoured the people with worked-out analyses and organisational models – almost any analyses and models. As the focal point of the struggle shifted from the streets to the committee rooms, it became blurred and less intense through that process. And here is a perennial problem of periods of social rupture – the division between ‘fighters’ and ‘organisers’- which can be seen as the ‘division of revolutionary labour’. We must constantly identify and challenge such division. However, it is not enough to challenge it formally, because it persists by default, from our failure to articulate the historically new needs expressed in insurrectionary practice yet still lacking the new language required to counterpose those needs to the old ‘socialist’ models.

For all those reasons, the earlier suggestion of ‘general assemblies’ is not without problems. The main difficulties to be surmounted would be: the different histories of the various members, the different levels of commitment, the different goals desired, the fear and mistrust among member groups, and now the more dispersed ‘guerilla’ tactics required to counter a better-equipped police force. Yet we need to tackle these problems – now if we are to cease reaffirming our ‘marginalised’ misery and instead advance ourselves as a class, to advance from defence yet again to offence.

– M. Brique, March I982

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Also published in We Want to Riot, Not to Work

THE CASE OF PATRICIA GIAMBI

To be deported for possession of anarchist literature

(text of leaflet circulated September 1981)

We want to bring to your attention the case of Patricia Giambi, which arises out of the events which took place in Brixton on April 1lth. Her story began, like many others, on Saturday April 1lth, when she was caught up in a police charge near her Brixton home and charged with having an offensive weapon and of using threatening behaviour and words. Here again her situation was similar to hundreds of others, police accusations resting on contradictory elements of identification in what was a crowd situation in a narrow unlit street.

It did not take police long to single her out for special treatment, however, when they discovered that she was living in the same house as someone on whom they had a political file and who was also arrested that evening. From that moment on, there has been a deliberate and unconcealed attempt to single out these two women and frame them in the role of outside agitators in an event which has been widely recognised as a popular uprising against survival conditions and police provocation. The role attributed to Patricia, prompted by her Italian nationality, is that of the imperative ‘foreign link’ – an Italian one to boot – where police, through the organs of the daily press, have made repeated references and innuendos to the Red Brigades, international terror links and so on.

As an EEC citizen, she left her local government post for a year, using her full rights of mobility as laid down in the Treaty of Rome, to find employment here and to study the English language. Language difficulties and ever-increasing unemployment made it difficult for her to find work, but she was eventually engaged as a cleaner in a local hospital, where she worked six mornings a week. She has also gained an intermediate English certificate at Westminster College, which she has attended since January.

Over the past few months, since her arrest in April, she has appeared in court on numerous occasions and while on bail was granted her passport to go to Italy to visit her sick father. She returned early in September to face trial and now finds herself serving a sentence of 28 days in Holloway Prison and on completion faces deportation. This is as a result of being found guilty of threatening behaviour under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Upon conviction police presented the magistrate with an album of enlarged colour prints of the study of the flat where Patricia was living. The photos had been taken during a raid following her arrest and showed bookshelves containing, among others, books dealing with anarchist theory and history which are freely available in libraries and bookshops. These, plus a photograph of a poster in the same room with the slogan (in Italian) Bread, love and struggle, were taken as being conclusive evidence that she was a national security risk, so justifying the deportation order. Patricia made no attempt to conceal her interest in anarchism which, as far as she knew, was not illegal in this country.

When the deportation order was contested by her barrister, lan McDonald, police overtly reinterpreted EEC law by saying that she was not a bona fide worker (an expression which does not appear in the act) or student, and therefore could benefit from no rights. She has been working for over four months and studying at Westminster College in the evenings. She was also at one time part of a libertarian book collective and worked voluntarily one afternoon per week. This was distorted by police and presented as further evidence as to why she should be deported.

She is appealing against her sentence and in the meantime we feel her case should be brought to the widest public attention, as it sets an ominous precedent.

-Friends of Patricia Giambi

September 1981

Postscript to the leaflet (1982):

After she went back into prison upon being sentenced on September 17, Friends of Patricia Giambi distributed the above leaflet (among others) to organise a support campaign for her appeal against the Magistrate Court’s recommendation, that the Home Office deport her. Finally on October 15 she won her appeal at the Inner London Crown Court. Thus her case did not go to the next step, where the Home Office would have decided to accept the Magistrate Court’s original recommendation that she be deported.

Despite that victory, we should not forget the precedents set by this case for criminalisation of revolutionaries, in particular: 1) Of all the EEC nationals who were arrested on similar charges in the Brixton uprisings, Patricia Giambi was the only one who received a recommendation for deportation in addition to a prison sentence. Obviously, then, that overtly political treatment was due not to the criminal charge as such but to her choice of housemate. It’s not what you’ve done but who you are, how you live. 2) The courts’ refusal to grant bail meant that there was little point in pursuing an appeal against the prison sentence, as Patricia completed the 28 days before the date of her appeal anyway. The prosecution arguments against bail were that she might abscond and that ‘there is evidence to show she is an anarchist’. 3) Even though she completed the 28 days before her appeal date, she wasn’t permitted to leave the prison until she won the appeal – apparently on grounds that she might evade an eventual deportation order. Since it is common practice for the British state to imprison potential deportees only after they have received a deportation order, the judicial system was treating Patricia as if the Home Office had already decided to deport her – indeed, almost as if her appeal could not succeed. Thus her additional imprisonment served in effect to confirm the police theory that she was a politically dangerous person.

4) When the magistrate at the appeal hearing incredulously challenged the respondant’ (the prosecution) to prove their suggestion that Patricia was part of a dangerous anarchist conspiracy, the police declined to make their accusation any more specific but instead went as far as to argue that she should be deported as an ‘undesirable’ because of her association with other people who are themselves ‘undesirable’. (Unfortunately for the police, most of her London friends hold British citizenship and so cannot themselves be deported.)

Although the courts ultimately did not accept the wilder police innuendo about Patricia having organised the riots, this was partly because of the support which had to counter not only the police but also the mass media, (See for example the Daily Mail 17 October 1981, in which a journalist enthusiastically promotes the police arguments – quoted in full – as to why she should have been deported.) Furthermore, the police succeeded in setting the terms of reference: on the key issues of bail and deportation, they forced the defence case to refute grave criminal accusations (e.g. organising riots), yet without the police having to mount a normal prosecution case on such charges. So the entire affair, especially Patricia’s imprisonment while awaiting the appeal hearing, served to lend credence to the conspiracy theory of the uprising, even in the absence of any concrete evidence. Instead the police pressed forward their case entirely on the basis of Patricia’s life, particularly her ‘associations’. Perhaps the British police are following the lead of developments in Italy, where the state (especially the Italian Communist Party) is putting away thousands of revolutionaries into prison on charges of ‘subversive association’ – for which they can be kept imprisoned for up to 12 years without trial. Upon a later visit back to Britland she got a xmas tree of alarms at Customs courtesy of Special Branch and stooges.

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Brixton before the Riots, part 3: The Brixton Plan & Squatting

Three main elements contributed to the eruption of rioting in Brixton in 1981. In parallel with the development of Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community, the racism it faced from the police, and the resistance this provoked, the other crucial factor was the heavily squatted nature of housing in the area, which had the effect of producing the third factor – the proliferation of radical and liberation projects.
Mass squatting in the Brixton area was a product of a combination of a failed planning project, a spike in homelessness and the emergence of the modern squatters’ movement in 1969.

The Brixton Plan

Brixton, late 1960s: A century and a half of social change had transformed a prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

The Borough was faced with a rising level of homelessness: a survey in 1967 reckoned that much of the housing in the area had less than ten years life left in it, and that to house the 14,000 homeless households, and cope with those who would likely be made homeless as these homes became unusable, the Council would have to build or refurbish 4000 houses a year for the next seven years. This didn’t even take account of those on the Waiting List. Given the then shortage of building workers this target was unlikely at best. But pressure was put on the Planning Dept to come up with a solution.

Lambeth Director of Planning, Ted Hollamby, had won a reputation for small-scale housing developments that blended with their surroundings, and came from a radical background, living as he did in a ‘progressive’ architectural commune in William Morris’s old Red House in Bexleyheath. While previously working for the London County Council, he had attempted to save old buildings from demolition. He seems to have been a somewhat contradictory character, or had a change of heart. Under Hollamby’s leadership (it was said of him at the time that “The planning process is highly centralised, taking place as it does entirely within [his] head.”) the Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

Ted Hollamby launching a development. Behind him, 3rd from the right, then Lambeth councillor Ken Livingstone. Whatever happened to him?

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, and part of Coldharbour Lane turned into an urban motorway. Interestingly that’s why Southwyck House, known universally locally as the Barrier Block, is built like a huge wall with relatively few windows in the side facing Coldharbour Lane: to cushion the noise from this subsequently never built motorway. Not just to make its residents feel imprisoned – although for years rumours have asserted the Block’s design to be modeled on a plan for a Swedish Prison. When it opened, after ten years in the building, huge problems with different contractors, it was declared unfit for families to live in. It was gleefully pointed out in 1995, when then Prime Monster John Major described council estates as ‘grey, sullen wastelands, robbing people of self-respect’ that ex-Lambeth Housing Chair Major had been on the planning committee that had approved the Barrier Block!

Artists impression of Brixton town centre as it was to become

The plan was openly to re-engineer the area’s social mix, bringing middle class ‘urban professionals’ into the area, and (less openly) to disperse black people and other undesirables from Central Brixton. The 1971 opening of Brixton tube station was seen as the first step in “an attempt to upgrade the area on a very large scale.” Plans for a new office blocks, new schools, and new housing estates were scheduled; they would entirely replace the majority of the crumbling Victorian houses in Central Brixton. Some of the planned estates was to be low-rise, high density, but the centre piece featured Brixton Towers, five 52 storey tower blocks, the highest housing scheme outside Chicago, 600 feet high. A new park would serve the proposed 6000 new residents… In effect the plan would have restricted traffic to a few major trunk roads, encircling islands of high density housing with limited access. Such schemes carried out elsewhere quickly decayed into ghettos, cut off by perimeter roads; in fact the first new estate to be built, Stockwell Park, although low-rise, turned into a nightmare for many. Its purpose-built garages were not used for years, damp and disrepair set in and it rapidly began to be used as a dumping ground for supposed ‘problem tenants’.

Few of Lambeth’s 300,000 population knew much about this plan. But pretty soon, the effects of the processes set in motion under the plan began to bite. Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed. And as part of the proposals a huge central shopping centre was to extend from Coldharbour Lane out as far as Kellett Road (this would have been built by Ravenseft, responsible for the Elephant & Castle folly). And so a huge area of Railton Road and Mayall Road was Compulsory Purchased.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had  ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised (much of the Ringways project was defeated by local opposition), and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac on the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this was never met.


By the early 70s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Rising property prices had led many landlords to evict tenants to sell off houses. There were also an increasing number of empty houses (officially in 1971, 5225, two and a half times the 1961 figure), many of which were occupiable and not scheduled for immediate demolition, as it could take as long as 7 years from CPO to redevelopment.

Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, and an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough.

Incidentally planner Ted Hollamby’s trajectory lurched further from consultative architecture – after leaving Lambeth Council’s employ in 1981, he went to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation, helping to ‘regenerate’ London’s docks in the interest of big business in the face of protests from most of the local population. Admittedly he attempted to mix conservations with the massive developments, though its the bulldozing that dominated. He’s remembered fondly in Brixton for his part in the design of estates like Cressingham Gardens…

Oh My God they’ve Moving in Next Door

Squatting came to Lambeth in March 1969, when a group occupied an empty five-storey office block in Brixton Road in protest at housing shortage.

A Lambeth Family Squatters Group quickly developed, housing mainly families stuck in overcrowded or badly repaired homes or waiting for council housing.

By 1970, the Borough Council had made an accommodation with its local Family Squatting Group to licence families to stay in occupied houses. This was very much in the spirit of the times, as pressure and media attention drew public support for squatting in empty property. However, licensed squatters were soon outnumbered by unlicensed ones, mainly single people, who the Family Squatting Associations wouldn’t house, although there was also a rise people who were squatting politically, occupying empties as shared houses or communes as a challenge to property rights and conventional ways of living, This neither the original squatting groups or the Council liked at all. Lambeth’s ‘official’ squatting group became Lambeth Self-Help Housing Co-op in 1971, the Council handed over 110 houses to them to administer (172 by 1974); in this way, Lambeth, like other authorities, was partly recognising they could do little to stop squatting and might as well have it under some form of loose control, as it could take the houses back when it could afford to do something with them. Much divisions arose from the licensing of some squats; Councils slyly pitted co-ops against squatters and tried to drive wedges between them. It’s true that while co-ops saved many people from eviction, they also acted in many cases to pressurise people to leave houses when the Councils demanded them back, and helped to regulate squatters, tone down organised resistance and shovel people into paying rent for substandard houses. There was also a lot of double dealing; squatters would be offered rehousing on the day of eviction, and as the Council trashed the house around them they would be moved to a hard to let property, often unfit to live in. in some cases this house would be taken back very quickly too  – in at least some cases the day after they were moved in!

Lambeth Self-Help, like many ‘70s housing co-ops, slowly evolved from a DIY activist group towards a larger more bureaucratic set-up. By 1977 they had a paid workforce of ten; by the 1990s they were managing hundreds of homes, often Council street properties that had been in poor nick. They housed many people over the years, but like many such groups, some of the people who ran the group were either power-mad or corrupt on a small scale. Abraham Korten, who evolved to become LSH’s supremo, became a notorious power-monger; just one example being how he attempted to persuade the Council to hand over Rushcroft Road and other shortlife properties to LSH in 1999, without even consulting the Rushcroft Road residents themselves. At other times, leading co-op activists secured large properties for themselves ahead of other needy members…

As noted by an observer elsewhere: “The squatting movement of the 1970s contained a number of middle class activists… it tended to be these people who became most active in organising short-life groups and co-ops to negotiate deals with local councils… Large shortlife organizations… gradually developed a bureaucratic structure run mainly by (these) middle class professionals, who were quick to recognise a new job market for their class… Housing activists who were willing to function as an extension of the local state housing bureaucracy were soon to be seen doing the council’s dirty work.”
(anonymous leaflet, circulated within Shortlife Community Housing, (a Camden Housing Co-op) reprinted in No Reservations, 1988.)

In the mid-70s, Lambeth was widely held to be the most squatted borough in London. The upsurge created whole squatted communities and experiments: Villa Road, Railton Road/Mayall Road in Central Brixton; St Agnes Place and Oval Mansions in Kennington; Bonnington Square/Vauxhall Grove, Radnor Terrace/Rosetta Street/Wilcox Road, and Mawbey St/Brough St all in Vauxhall; Heath Road/Robertson St, St Alphonsus Road and Rectory Gardens in Clapham, and Hubert Grove, off Landor Road; Priory Grove in Stockwell… and  many more. Later on there was Lingham Road, Stockwell, the Triangle in Norwood (Berridge rd, Bristow Rd), Effra Parade, St George’s Mansions, Loughborough Park, Stockwell Mansions… and many more. Many of these squat nexi became housing co-ops and some survive in that form today. And 100s of other squats existed, on their own or in ones and twos, with 1000s of flats on estates also being squatted.

Most of these arose in streets which had been part of Compulsory Purchase Schemes, then left largely or wholly empty by planning blight. Some remained squatted (or intermittently licenced) for nearly 30 years, some became co-ops in the 70s and 80s, some gradually were evicted. Some squatters formed action groups to try and preserve their houses, of these, as with Villa Road, some partially succeeded and became co-ops, while others like St Agnes Place prevented their destruction but made no long-term deals with the Council. While many of the squatters were content to house themselves and live a quiet life, the growth of squatting as a whole bolstered a large and diverse radical scene in Brixton. Many of the squatters were alternative types, socialists, feminists, anarchists, bohemians or artists of one stripe or another, or lesbians and gay men trying to create new ways of living outside the traditional family set up…  Many others wanted little more than somewhere affordable to live. These widely varying reasons for squatting led to disputes and splits, as some of the more ‘political’ squatters took a more confrontational line while others pursued licences and formed co-ops. In may cases though, a dual approach saved people’s houses, as with Villa Road.

Many buildings were occupied for social centres, housing a dizzying spectacle of alternative projects and community spaces. There was a social centre/ squatters advice at 119 Railton Road next door around 1973-4, part of a large Frontline squatting (a Railton Road squatters group was still going in 1975). The radical People’s News Service operated from no 119.

The shopfronts (since demolished) at no 78-80 Railton Rd, in front of the St George’s Residences, included a squatted Claimants Union office, the South London Gay Centre and a women’s space, around 1974-6…

Communes, radical experiments in alternative ways of life to the traditional nuclear family, were set up…

Young, Gifted and Homeless

Gradually many local black youth began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, their squatted HQ was in Vining Street (and was attacked by racists in August 1983).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were often fractious (see report on the 1982 frontline riot, below). Black magazine Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.” Although this statement ignores many exceptions, and “indigenous population” is an unlikely term where London is concerned, there is an element of truth to this statement. Many white squatters WERE “outsiders”, and did often have little commitment to stay in an area, which they weren’t originally from. But a huge chunk of London’s population has for centuries been from elsewhere, transient, moving (often forced to move) from one area of town to another. Squatters in many cases would settle down if they could – it’s the landlords, council, cops and courts that drive them out.

Black squatters of course received their unfair share of agro from the local state and the bizzies. And the press, always up for a story about noisy blacks, spread tales of black squatters terrorising their neighbours.

Some of the black Squatters’ actions had longer term effects than anyone could have foreseen. In January 1973, Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull, two black women squatting in a flat above a disused laundry at 121 Railton Road, were illegally evicted by agents of the private landlords. They broke back in, only to be dragged out by 5 cops; Olive however escaped the filth, climbed back in and spent several hours on the roof, supported by a crowd of people outside. There was some scuffling between cops and this group, and black youth worker, Ivan Madray, was nicked; (in the way recuperation gets ya, he was later one of the “community leaders’ discredited during the riots in April 1981, accused of collusion with the police.)

The council and cops failed to get her down with offers of accommodation, and they eventually left. She re-occupied the flat, staying there for ages. Later Sabaar Collective took over the building for a black bookshop; when they left in 1980, anarchists who had used Sabaar as a postal address squatted the building, founding the 121 Bookshop, which squatted there for 19 years, getting evicted in 1999.

Olive Morris had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager; women were vocal and active in the Movement. As a result tensions had arisen, and women activists had begun to meet and discuss the problems; as a result a sense of the need to organise separately developed. As part of this process Olive was later a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, the Brixton Black Women’s Centre and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent; she was a fearless fighter against the powers that be. She died, aged only 26, of cancer, in 1979. Lambeth in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department (recently demolished).

Villa Victory

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness.

Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups –  one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organising in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help.  Tenants groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

The Gutting and smashing up of houses was an integral part of this strategy: houses when evicted were to be rendered totally unliveable in. In some cases this got highly dangerous: houses in Wiltshire Road were wrecked with an old woman still living in the basement, while people were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in the Housing Dept thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

There was resistance to the evictions/destruction. In November 1976, a crowd of squatters barricaded Vining Street off Railton Road, jeering off bailiffs and workmen, to prevent their homes being smashed up – much of Rushcroft Road and Vining Street was already semi-derelict from neglect.  The Council had already admitted that evicted houses would lie empty for two years and more.

However Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

In Villa Road, empties had been gradually squatted 1973-76. In response to tenants campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Rd, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor Terrace, Vauxhall, the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy. Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…There was a plan for a demo when the Queen came to visit on 30 June 1977: what happened? Hope she had a torrid jubilee visit…

Meanwhile some Possession Orders in Villa Road were thrown out in court. Negotiations opened up with the council, and after much trench warfare and court wrangling, half of Villa Road was saved as part of Lambeth Self Help, in return for the demolition of the southern half, with rehousing for most of the residents.

Some of those rehoused were moved to Rushcroft Road, to face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth and London & Quadrant Housing Association… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers.

Fighting off the wreckers in St Agnes Place, January 1977. The child in her mother’s arms would go on to fight Lambeth taking the street till 2005…!

In St Agnes Place, squatters had first moved into empty houses in 1974 – some of the buildings had been unoccupied for 14 years. By December 1976 over 100 people were squatting there. In January 1977 over 250 police had arrived at dawn to preside over the demolition of empty houses, although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters. These houses remained squatted for decades, to be finally evicted and demolished in 2005.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft, one of the major backers of the Plan, had pulled out the previous summer. The planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969. By the time the High Court hearing on Villa Road resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise with squatters at Villa Rd and elsewhere… St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road…

In May 1978, a new left-Labour Council was elected with Trotskyist Ted Knight, a and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chair respectively. The left had been fighting to try and take over from the old rightwing Labour guard for years. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Interestingly though, watered down versions of parts of the Brixton Plan were still surfacing in the 80s. In 1983, planning officers were proposing radical alterations to the lands cape, including demolishing many houses behind the west side of Brixton Road, to build shops and offices, and rerouting Coldharbour Lane through Rushcroft Road and Carlton Mansions (handily this would have got rid of hundreds of squatters and co-op dwellers living there). Central Brixton was once again being envisioned as hosting a grandiose block of flats on top of a car park and new shops. Opposition was rallied by housing co-ops and others, through the Brixton Action Group, who described the planners as “an elusive lot who lurk in Streatham making recommendations about land use and building design which we experience years later when we are told that although our houses are viable and necessary the council regrets that the land has been zoned for office development…” Fortunately amendments were made to the plans, which took objections into account, and ended up substantially humanised.

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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist Policing, Resistance & Black Power in 1970s Brixton

Part 2 of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

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“It is no exaggeration to say that thousands and thousands of young blacks have grown up in British society having little contact with any other section of British society but the police and courts. They have developed in the shadow of the SPG, the Vice Squad, the Flying Squad, the Starskys and Hutches of the panda car brigade, the Old Bailey, Inner London Sessions etc.” (Race Today, 1982)

In the early 1960s, Brixton experienced a swelling of the West Indian population, mainly in the form of the children of the first generation, who had begun to settle in the area from the late 1940s. Numbers of the original migrants had left young kids in the Caribbean, with relatives, partly thinking they would soon be returning from the UK. For most, forced into low paid jobs, any thought of saving up and moving back were largely scuppered. The ’50s had been a time of sparse isolation and discrimination for many, and the expense of sending money back home for support was biting. Gradually many came round to the idea of bringing their offspring over; an added urgency was given by the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. The Act aimed to restrict non-white migration into Britain by setting quotas for workers with particular skills or lack of them; basically it was aimed at West Indians and Asians. As economic boom times began to come to an end, fears were being whipped up about competition for jobs.

Many young Afro-Caribbeans then arrived here around this time, often just coming into teenage years or a bit older. Many couldn’t get school places, or went into very different schools when they arrived; older ones found it hard to get work. The experiences they had, in education, on the dole, with the police, were to create a generation that began to go beyond mere existence, survival, endurance, and fight back…

The Coach and Horses pub, Coldharbour Lane, the earliest Black-owned pub in Brixton, & its owner George Berry, after a racist firebomb attack.

Racial harassment was a daily occurrence for Brixton’s black community in the fifties. “In those days, there was a lot of racism was the teddy boys. I used to work in Effra Road, and one day I was going to work and it was very foggy. I knew these chaps behind me were white. The one of the came up alongside me and felt my hair. My hair was straightened at the time, and he said, ‘This one’s hair feels white, so leave her alone.’ Then one of them shouted, ‘There’s a nigger over there.’ Whoever it was, she really got some kicks – you could hear her screaming. But things like this helped us to band together. We were all West Indians! When the teddy boys beat up a Black person from another island, some people would wait until a white person came into our area, pick up the milk bottles and beat them up. It was vicious but they were desperate times.”

Thoughout the 1950s and 60s, the gradual withdrawing from the empire and loss of the colonies led to a falling back for many white British people on their feeling of racial superiority to “the coloureds”. Hence the rise of racist attacks, race riots, as in Camden in 1954, Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958, the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959; and support for fascist groups like Oswald Mosley and co. In some areas tenants & residents groups organised to keep blacks out of social housing, afraid “they” would spread into ‘white’ areas. Public health laws were also invoked to attack multi-occupation, hitting West Indian families in the large crumbling Victorian homes in areas like Brixton.

In response to racism many Black Communities kept their heads down and tired to simply weather the storm. Others stuck their heads above the parapet. In March 1958, the West Indian Gazette was founded in Brixton. Their office was above Theo Campbell’s record shop at 250 Brixton rd, and later at 13 Station Avenue (now Station Road). It was founded by Claudia Jones, a communist deported from the US, and Amy Ashwood, widow of Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The Gazette was produced monthly, with very limited resources, though supported by international Black communist superstar Paul Robeson and other black radicals. The paper covered race relations, discrimination, police harassment, campaigning all the time for equality for the new migrants, but in the context of a wider sense of social change and justice… It was Claudia Jones, who did most of the work, as manager, editor, main writer and fundraiser.

Claudia had been born in Trinidad in 1915, moving with her family to Harlem in 1926. Claudia grew up in poverty, facing racism and inequality, which led her into a life of campaigning and journalism. In 1936 she joined the US Young Communist League, a hugely brave step when even the CP was heavily chauvinistic. Claudia became Negro Affairs Editor on the US edition of the CP paper the Daily Worker, and became involved in campaigning on wage freezes, voting rights, lynching, poll tax, women’s conscription… she was imprisoned on several occasions. As a result of her sterling work in the land of the free she was deported in 1955, and chose to come to Britain. On arrival she joined the Communist Party here, (though she had a fractious relationship with the party, being sidelined and virtually ignored – the CPGB was even more racially backward than its US counterpart) and set to work campaigning here for the same causes… As well as setting up the Gazette, she became active in the Coloured People’s Progressive Association, and also helped to set up first Notting Hill Carnival in 1959. Claudia sadly died too young in 1964 aged 49. She is buried next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

SUS and SPG

As early as the 1960s, police attitudes towards local black people were openly hostile, and this expressed itself in violent persecution. Police openly labelled their operations against black people in Brixton ‘nigger hunting’.

“If things go on like it is going on now, twenty years time, or forty years time, our children may be marching from Liverpool and Birmingham coming to London singing ‘We Shall Overcome’…” Nameless Jamaican, during a 1964 conversation in Brixton about prejudice and the US civil rights struggle. Quoted in Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion‘).

It took less than 20 years, and they weren’t singing we shall overcome…

Working class communities have always been subject to systematically hostile policing. But conditions in Brixton as in many other areas in Britain became much worse in the 1970s. Local communities, black mainly but white as well, were often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. In fact many parents did forcibly try to keep their teenage (and younger) kids indoors at weekends to stop them going out. Partly this was fear of them getting nicked, though many older more law-abiding Caribbean folk did feel they were losing control of their more rebellious and militant kids.  The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname  – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime”_ – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction.

SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests.

Among the places where black kids could get off the street away from police harassment, were local black youth clubs; but as a result, raids and searches of the clubs gradually were a regular occurrence. Police would storm in: “Twenty to thirty police burst into the premises, they knew every door, toilet etc… They burst in like commandos in Africa. They grabbed people by their hair and necks… they said they were looking for somebody… They took away almost everybody out of the club…” Raids caused increasing anger: another incursion “caused chaos in the club. Some members became very restive and excitable; others were aggressive as they were not allowed to leave the building… The end result was one of noise and anger against the police.” In at least one case they brought a bloke in who they claimed was a mugging victim, to look for the alleged perps, only it later turned out this guy was another copper, posing as a ‘victim’.

In Brixton, to this day, but even more so in the ’70s and ’80s, any small incident could escalate, often because any call for assistance by an officer (often over the most minor ‘offence’) would be answered with massive force. Cops over-reacted routinely. The open police radio allowed coppers not actively engaged with anything else to race to any incident.

In the 1970s, sympathy towards the rightwing nationalist National Front (the NF, many of whose core members were long-time Nazi sympathisers, though they had gathered increasing support among the wider white population), agreement with its views, if not actual membership, was widespread among the police, and this was true of Lambeth. Black people coming up against the police, facing or reporting racist attacks, or crime against them in general, would usually be faced with racist comments and treatment, if the cops bothered to turn up at all.

National Front paperseller in Brixton

At least twice in 1978, the police protected the National Front in Brixton. In April at Loughborough Park Junior School, 1500 police protected an NF electoral meeting, while 800 anti-fascists demonstrated nearby. Police co-operated with NF stewards, and closed off access to parts of nearby estates and harassed people who were trying to get to their homes, as well as nicking 6 black youths leaving the demo (under sues). In May cops protected Front members selling their racist shite along the Frontline in Rail ton Road  – where they might otherwise have had difficulty leaving in one piece. A tiny number of Nazis were escorted by large numbers of police. Coming so soon after the NF march in Lewisham in 1977 – which had seen a massive police operation protecting a Front march from thousands of anti-fascists, locals and leftists of all stripes, ending in huge battles throughout southeast London – it seemed obvious that the police were hand in glove with the Front. Contrast this with police treatment of black or anti-racist demos – many of which were systematically attacked by the cops in the late ’70s and ’80s.

State Paid Gangsters

“War…War… All we doin’ is defendin’…”
Linton Kwesi Johnson

On top of the day-to-day community policing of the type just described, Lambeth and Brixton in particular was regularly graced by large-scale invasions of the Special Patrol Group (later re-branded the Territorial Support Group or TSG, after its operations had aroused massive outrage); basically the paramilitary unit responsible for large operations and responding to/policing public order situations.

“Between 1975 and 1979 there were six attacks by the SPG on the people of Lambeth.  Every time the same general pattern was followed – roadblocks, early morning raids and random street checks. In 1978 over half the total strength of the SPG, 120 officers, supplemented by 30 extra officers from Scotland yard were drafted into the Lambeth police area because of its alleged ‘high crime rate’. Over 1000 people were stopped on the streets and 430 people arrested; 40% of those arrested were black, more than double the estimated black population of the local community. The SPG operation was concentrated around four housing estates, all with high black populations.”

On top of this several CID, Serious Crimes Squad, Flying Squad and Fraud Squad officers would be drafted in to take part in operations. SPG activities were heavily influenced by policing tactics in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Occasionally SPG could be seen walking the streets, eyeing up black people and hanging around outside squats and blues clubs; more often they cruised the streets in their transits, up and down the Frontline, stopping cars and searching, setting up roadblocks, swooping onto estates, hauling in groups of kids under ‘sus’, raiding, intimidating. One SPG operation centred around an alleged Bomb Squad car that had been stolen and supposedly pursued to Railton road. The area was sealed off. More than 30 police, including the Bomb and Anti-Terrorist Squads, were involved. Although the official story was that there were detonators in the car for controlled explosions, is was widely suspected at the time that this was in fact a dry run for a counter-insurgency operation. Many SPG ops at the time consisted in no small part of low-level intelligence gathering, ie collection of names, addresses, details, of people who for one reason or another the police believed to be suspicious.

Grandiose claims were made for the SPG’s affect in reducing street crime, the main excuse given for their presence. Figures were bandied about, Reports issued, but little real hard evidence could ever by brought to bear. The anger the squad’s heavy-handed tactics created built up throughout the decade. Across the country, the SPG were increasingly being used to police (attack) strikes & demonstrations; they had evolved from an anti-crime unit into a paramilitary force. Police methods in Brixton more and more seemed to be the actions of an occupying army against the local people. And this wasn’t just a Conspiracy theory  – that’s how the cops themselves saw things.

Commander Adams hit the nail on the head when asked (on TV) about an SPG operation in Brixton: “No good general ever declares his forces in a prelude to any kind of attack.”

As an ex-police officer revealed: “You are told that you are the Law, you control the streets, you don’t give way to others. You make them give way. You’ve got to demonstrate your authority.” The police believed for many years in Brixton that they were involved in a war for control of the streets – a view mirrored on the other side. A statement from a social worker claimed (around 1979-80) that “When talking to these young people one gets the impression of guerrilla – young people believe they are winning the war.”

Raids got worse when the SPG came to town: “During November 1978, when the SPG were in Brixton, the activities of the Youth Project were severely affected. Our chief club night, on Thursdays, was reduced to a handful of attending members. Through January and February, it recovered to the usual 100 mark.”

SPG operations in 1973-5 led to the creation of Lambeth Campaign Against Police Repression; in 1978, All-Lambeth Anti Racist Movement, the Black Parents Against SUS, the Trades Council, the Anti-Nazi League and other groups campaigned against the SPG presence, culminating in a demo through Brixton In November ’78.

If there was a war going on for the control of the streets, clearly Brixton Police/the SPG saw community spaces and youth centres as an extension of the battleground. The effect of continuing attacks on clubs drove more young people ONTO the street, where confrontations were increasing.

… And the Resistance

“those days of the truncheon and those nights,
of melancholy locked in a cell…
were well numbered,
and are now at an end…

All we doin’ is defendin’…”

Linton Kwesi Johnson

“The revolt of Brixton’s young blacks against the police did not begin when the media and the rest of British society discovered it on the weekend of April 10th to April 13th [1981]. In the last ten years, young blacks in Brixton engaged the local police in minor skirmishes, organised protests, violent street confrontations and hand-to-hand fighting in youth clubs and other social haunts. Add to these the string of one to one incidents, characterised by the hostility and violent outbursts of the participants. Much of this history has taken place behind the backs of the rest of British society, often unrecorded.”
(Race Today, 1982)

From the late 1960s on, this constant war between black youth and the police was fought not just physically, but politically. In November 1969, black people protested in the market, after a Nigerian diplomat was attacked and arrested by Brixton Police (who accused him of nicking his own car, an old old tactic familiar to any black person who dared to own a vehicle); predictably, the rozzers steamed into this demo: “three brothers and a sister were again beaten, one of them (Bro Tex) received a broken arm.” Olive Morris (later a Black Panther) had been arrested during the diplomat’s own arrest.

Many first generation West Indians who moved into Brixton, responded to racism, police attacks, discrimination, by trying to keep their heads down, not making a fuss, putting up with, (if not completely accepting as fair) shit jobs, overcrowded housing and constant abuse, hoping it would gradually disappear over time. (This is not true of all, witness the self defence organised in 1958 against racist rioters in Notting Hill.) “Those of us who came here in the late 50s and early 60s were constrained by the myth that we were going home sooner or later, that we would earn some money and go, and therefore tended to put up with things that we knew were wrong – but there are young blacks who were born here, who have grown up here, who eat bangers and mash, egg and chips” (Darcus Howe)

This generation reacted to police oppression with a completely different attitude: this was their home, they had little intention of “returning” to islands they barely knew if at all, and were determined to make space for themselves in Britain.

“British rulers had maintained that young blacks, who were born here or grew up here, would follow the social pattern laid down for their parents. Young blacks, they hoped, would meekly accept those jobs that refused to do; they would bow, bend before and make accommodations with their employers; they would be hesitant and cautious in their opposition to police malpractice. Undoubtedly some did, but the major tendency among the youth was a rejection, a total and militant rejection to these established ways of immigrant life.”  (Race Today, 1982)

Many young blacks opted not to enter into crap low paid jobs,  even if they could beat the constant low-level racism of employers; but drifted into permanent unemployment, and the street life that was increasingly taking over central Brixton.

This rebellious generation produced community organisations that gathered the anger in the area together and forged it into a weapon.

Earlier organisations had taken on institutional racism – the League of Coloured People, etc… In the mid-1960s, a number of groups had federated to form the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), but the alliance of older black organisations, newer and more radical groups, had foundered on political differences, soon splintering.

“What the Black panther movement did initially was to give people, mostly the children of working immigrants, a place to belong, an identity and a feeling that we are a force; we are somebody, we are a dimension in the world, we’re not just somebody’s servants.”
(Farrukh Dhondy).

Younger black activists were increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA. Visits from US leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (who spoke at a rally in Brixton in 1967), and later the activities of the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, CARD and others.

The Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967 by Nigerian playwright and poet Obi Egbuna in Stoke Newington, had a branch in Brixton, holding Black Power rallies there. The UCPA politicised black young people through meetings and study groups. Ogi Egbuna had been a speaker at Speakers Corner: “he was also giving these kind of militant speeches at Hyde Park Corner. We were quite impressed, we thought, ‘At last somebody is standing up and, you know, not just taking it, not just taking the crap.’ “ (Farrukh Dhondy).

Egbuna had travelled in the US and met some of the Black Panthers there. Heavily influenced by Marxism, he stressed the importance of an international struggle against capitalism, as a part of the global struggle against racial oppression. In a speech from 1967 at Trafalgar Square, London, Egbuna stated: “Black Power means simply that the black of this world are to liquidate capitalist oppression of black people wherever it exists by any means necessary”.

The UCPA’s early activity focused around support for the struggles in Rhodesia, Vietnam, liberation struggles in Africa, and the Chinese Cultural revolution… At home it became increasingly active around police racism and harassment. In 1969 the Association held a black poser rally against ‘organised police brutality’ in Brixton, as well as joining in protests against paki-bashing in the East End. While not directly advocating violence except in self-defence against racist attacks, UCPA speakers did urge direct action to paralyse the economy. Roy Sawah, in a speech 1968 at Speaker’s Corner, urged “coloured nurses to give wrong injections to patients, coloured bus crews not to take the fare of black people and Indian restaurant owners to ‘put something in the curry’.”

Speakers denounced ‘white devils’, ‘anglo-saxon swine’ and the like, and were prosecuted… Egbuna himself later that year ended up in prison accused of threatening to kill police and certain politicians – charges that were dismissed when it came to court. They had been prosecuted under the new Race Relations Act – ironically at a time of increased racist attacks and violent incitement against black people. This was the year of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. He wasn’t prosecuted (though he was sacked from the tory government).

The UCPA only lasted from 1967 to 1971. It foundered on the lack of a unifying idea of its purpose. “Within that single organisation, there were members who believed that the answer to the black man’s problem lay in the overthrow of the capitalist system, and there were others who felt it lay in the Black man going to the House of Lords; there were some who saw themselves as part of the international Black revolution, and there was a faction who believed that the Black man in this country should concern himself only with what goes on in this country… in short, it became all too clear that what we had was not one movement, but movements within a movement.” (Egbuna).

Egbuna resigned from the UCPA, together with others dissatisfied with the disunity of the group he formed the UK Black Panthers in 1968. Another group that fed into the  British Black Panthers, in its embryonic phase after the Mangrove 9 trial was called the Black Eagles, which met in West London. Later the Black Unity and Freedom Party also emerged from the dissolving UCPA.

The Black Panther Movement was strongly influenced by its US counterpart. Based at the Black People’s Information Centre, 38 Shakespeare Road, at their height they had 300, mainly working class, members in London, They produced a paper which they distributed door to door and in Brixton market, held public meetings, agitated, demonstrated, publicly opposing police violence and supporting people attacked, and framed by the cops. From this their activity spread into housing, education, supporting anti-colonial movements, producing revolutionary literature.

Black power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on.

Education, self-education, was at the heart of the movement. “The Black Panther movement wanted first to educate black people, you know, let them know where they’re from. In those days people like my parents, you know, that generation didn’t believe that they came from Africa… deep down they believed but they just cut that off… in schools, like in my school, Tulse Hill here… we had history from 1066 and the Normans and the Stuarts… but there was no history about Africa, how we as black people left Africa and end up in the Caribbean and America into slavery… So the Black Panther movment wanted to educate people about where they from and their culture, and they also wanted to tell us about capitalism, and communism, and socialism… why we work as slaves, why slavery was abolished…”

Increasing educational opportunities for local black children was one of their most practical activities:

“We had a Saturday school. During that Saturday school, the parents had a chance to do other things. They were very happy to have us. We were so idealistic. We’d go and collect the children and take them off their parents’ hands all day. We would feed them. I still see some of the parents of those children. They were very grateful for that. I don’t know how supportive they were of us but they certainly tolerated us. I think they understood what we were trying to do. I think those were the first supplementary schools. After that they became increasingly institutionalised.”  (Beverley Bryan)

Beverley Bryan, a teacher at Santley Street primary School in Brixton’s Acre Lane, and Linton Kwesi Johnson, to become a pre-eminent dub poet, were two of the early panthers particularly involved in the supplementary education classes, often held at 38 Shakespeare Road – picking up Black kids from their homes, holding classes in english, maths, black history, drama, and more…

Groups of black activists formed Black Studies groups, sometimes in schools: “We went to the Head and asked her to let us set up a Black Studies debating society. She was really shocked and upset by it all. She kept saying, ‘But why, we’re all one here.’ So we went off to join the Black Studies programme at Tulse Hill School, until she gave in. That’s we began to come into our own. We started with the black berets and carried it through, right down to black socks and shoes! That’s also when I went to my first Black meeting. I heard a Black woman there, and I was really impressed with her. Seeing a Black woman up there on the platform made me feel even more enthusiastic.”

Such groups fed into the Panthers; while the debating society at Tulse Hill School drew pupils Linton Kwesi Johnson into the Party youth section, after Panther leader and lawyer Althea Jones-Lecointe came to speak to a debate.

The Black People’s Information Centre

“Well in those days black people wouldn’t be allowed to meet in public places like the Town Hall in Brixton, and other public places, so the only way they could meet is if they were to meet in their own homes. So the Panthers decode to buy the building…”

Barred from meeting in most public spaces or buildings, the party moved into 38 Shakespeare Road, a 3-story building they had managed to buy, with help from donations; some of it money given by sympathetic left figures: “leftwing intellectuals, you know, like Vanessa Redgrave was a donor”. The party also had a HQ in North London, a building in Barnsbury Road, which was replaced later by a house in Seven Sisters, 37 Tollington Park, bought with money given by author John Berger.

The Panthers also regularly met and organised social events at Oval House, the arts centre in Kennington Oval.

To understand who I am

“I had the idea, right at the beginning, that culture was the only way out of this mission to complain. The mission to complain was, you know, ‘we are poor, sad blacks, beaten down, you discriminate against us, racism, racism, racism, complaint, complaint, complaint”, and that wouldn’t end until one said ‘Look, forget about the sadness, here’s what I can do.’ We could have an intellectual culture, and I’ve always thought that was the way forward…”
(Farrukh Dhondy).

Militant as it was, Black power activities also had a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups… The cultural element helped to draw people in, but also participation in the movement opened people’s eyes to their own cultural heritage, as Linton Kwesi Johnson relates:

“My real interest in poetry began when I joined the Black Panthers. Joining the Black Panthers was a life-changer for me because for the first time I discovered black literature, because going to school here I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that black people wrote books.

In the Black Panthers they had a library and all of a sudden I discovered all these wonderful books written by black people. One book in particular was a book called ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ written by an African American scholar by the name of W.E.B DuBois. And this book was not a book of poems, it was prose, but it was a very poetic prose and the language was very moving, And that book just stimulated my interest in poetry, and made me went to discover more poetry, and made me want to try and articulate in verse how I felt, and how the black youth of my generation felt about our experiences growing in this racially hostile environment.

I learnt a lot about my culture and I was able to locate myself in the world, and to understand myself more fully. Who I am, where I am coming from, and why I am where I am now.”

Here to stay, here to fight

But the war by the police on the local black community remained at the heart of their practice.

The celebrated Mangrove case in Notting Hill, (where a march against police harassment had led to nine leading activists  – including Darcus Howe – being charged with incitement, but who had defended themselves in court and been acquitted) had been a coalescing force in the development of black militant politics in London. It brought together small groups and individuals and began the process of turning them into a movement. At every stage of the case, both in the legal arena and on the streets, black self-organisation had pushed to a new collective level; both defendants like Darcus Howe and supporters/participants in the campaign were drawn into the Black Panthers.

A notable campaign was launched in November 1970, in support of Joshua Francis, a middle aged West Indian, whose house in Brixton was invaded by four white men, one an off-duty cop, who beat him up so he needed 30 stitches; upon which the police arrived and nicked Francis for assault (for which he was later sentenced to nine months inside).

Danny Dacosta and Neil Kenlock, who were taking on the role of movement photographers, in fact had to sneak into the hospital past the police, to take pictures of Francis’ injuries.

In contrast to most previous cases of police violence, the mould of silence was broken: Joshua Francis’ case was taken up, and made into a high profile Joshua Francis Defence Committee, later renamed the Black People’s Defence Committee, which met at the Brixton Neighbourhood Centre, at 1 Mayall Road, bringing together black community activists from the more moderate flank as well as strong presence from the Black Panthers, the Black Unity & Freedom Party and others. The Committee organised demonstrations in central Brixton, as well as fundraising for Francis and his family, and later similar cases of police violence.

And of course in the nature of such things, Brixton Police responded, by harassing the Panthers at every turn. British Black Panthers warned in October 1970, of a deliberate campaign ‘pick off Black militants’ and to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate’.

Panthers and other black activists were followed and stopped, in the street, while selling their papers; their fundraisers and the Brixton HQ were repeatedly raided. The usual catalogue of bizarre arrests and colourful charges visited by the peelers on rebels and protesters mounted up.

In 1970 four members of the Fasimbas, a Lewisham-based radical black organisation, were pounced on the then notorious Transport police led by Sgt. Ridgewell,  at the Oval tube station, and charged, with trying to ‘shop’ (mug) two old people and attempting to steal a policewoman’s handbag, also assault on police (as usual). All actively involved in the Fasimbas’ supplementary school, they were carrying books with them for the school project when they were arrested.

Beaten up inside the police station, forced to sign confessions, the ‘Oval 4’ were sentenced, the youngest to Borstal, the three others to two years imprisonment

However they were later all released on appeal.

In August 1971, a Black Panther dance at Oval House turned into to a mini-riot, after cops were refused entry to allegedly follow two ‘suspected young thieves’. More police turned up, carried out a search, but no two youths found. A fight then broke out, several people arrested, and three at least charged. They got suspended sentences.

On the eve of the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in 1971, the Panthers HQ was raided, their files rifled; the group was bogged down in court for months.

Apart from state repression and everyday police hassle of this kind, the Panthers also experienced its unofficial reflection – the racist attack. In 1973 the group squatted 74 Railton Road, to open it as a black bookshop to sell their increasing black literature, Freedom News and so on.

“So we had this Freedom News bookshop on the ground floor, and it was a derelict building… So [we] put in toilets and showers and we made it decent.” (Farrukh Dhondy). Dhondy and two others were living in the building as well as the bookshop. “On 15th March 1973, the date is printed in my head, I was asleep about four in the morning and suddenly I woke up choking…. I couldn’t see because the smoke was so thick…” Dhondy managed to jump out of the building in his underwear: “by that time some neighbours had had gone and called the people at Shakespeare road… and they came rushing out to see if I was okay. A neighbour opposite, just a guy I didn’t know even, he put a coat around me… The fire chief definitely came to me and said, ‘You’ve been set on fire, there’s a petrol bomb.’ Yes a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass.”

Five other similar targets had been fire-bombed that night, presumably by fascists of one stripe or another. “the police never did anything about it.” Shock. “the place was a shell, it was burnt out.”

Inevitably the constant repression had its effects: membership of the Panthers dwindled.

“it was like a meteor. It just rose and then by 1973 it had just fallen apart. Some people went to prison. At those demonstrations some people were picked out by the police and there were trials. We had big trials, publicity trials, which we attended. There were also smaller cases where people would get nine months. So people were getting records out of that period and people were beginning to ask questions.” (Beverley Bryan)

The Panthers evolved into the Black Workers’ Movement, around 1973; part of the impetus for this was a change in some people’s analysis of how class and race fitted together, and a developing Marxist consciousness: “The Black Workers Movement were organised around issues to do with racism within the workplace: equal opportunities, equal promotion, equal pay and so on…” Not only fighting the employers, but also in many cases, fighting to get recognition from established trade unions here, many of whose members saw black workers as a threat to pay, and conditions, thinking they would drive them down through competition. “So we had to fight, for example, to get ourselves into the trade union movement, and to be involved… and to build solidarity with white working class people…” (LKJ)

Though the BWM later fizzled out around 1975, in hindsight, some saw the Panthers and BWM as a movement that had served its purpose, that its decline allowed people to move on to other projects and stages of the battle. But others do point out that some of the groups taking a direction towards co-operation with white working class or left organisations didn’t carry a big section of the early activists with them; people who had come in to a black power movement, and saw white working class support for Enoch Powell, the National Front, or how trade unions etc had excluded black people, weren’t always convinced of this new turn, that this was where black people’s interests lay.

The Race Today office

Among the other Black organisations and spaces that arose in the 1970s, there was the Collective around the magazine Race Today. Originally linked to the Institute of Race Relations, Race Today moved to Brixton, and was taken over by a group of mainly former Panthers, who had started to drop out of the party. Operating from 165 Railton Road, (above Brixton Advice Centre), became a strong voice in the 1970s and ’80s, a fighting magazine reporting on black community struggles and burning issues of the day, and helping to build black organisations, eg the British Black Panthers, and other organisations like the Northern Collectives up in Bradford and Leeds. The journal was involved in several important campaigns that helped to transform both the political and cultural lives of black people in Britain. Many former Panthers became involved in Race Today, including editor Darcus Howe, dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy, later commissioner/editor of Channel Four’s cultural programs.

Living above Race Today from 1981 till his death in 1989 was a man who had a most powerful influence in its politics: CLR James, (Darcus Howe’s uncle), Trinidadian Marxist, writer, and cricket correspondent! Politically he had moved through anti-colonialism, pan-Africanism to Trotskyism. During the 1930s he wrote the classic ‘The Black Jacobins’, about the 1790s Caribbean revolutionaries who fought off the Brits, the French and the Spanish.  James broke with Trotskyism when he rejected Trotsky’s ludicrous theory of the Soviet Union as a ‘degenerated workers state’. Gradually he had come to reject the idea of a vanguardist party, and was more enthusiastic over autonomous struggles developing among oppressed minorities and encouraged support for black nationalism.

James exercised a practical influence on some of the Panthers: “We used to write all this stuff [in Freedom News], theoretical stuff, in the magazine, about… what black people or immigrants in Britain need and so on, and one day Darcus brought his uncle, CLR James, to the meeting and James said, ‘Who is it, writes all this newspaper…. Why are you writing all this theoretical stuff, nobody cares for that. Why don’t you write about what you do?’ Then he asked somebody in the room, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m a bus conductor.’… ‘What goes on at the garage? …What disputes are there? What fights are there? What day-to day stuff goes on?… Write about that, it’ll instruct people.’ …” (Farrukh Dhondy)

Like the Black Panthers, the Black Unity and Freedom Party emerged from the earlier Universal Coloured People’s Association (after the Panthers had splintered off, the core of the surviving UCPA forming the BUFP). Although stronger in the early ’70s in other parts of London – notably Peckham – and in Manchester, the BUFP also had a presence in Brixton, and unlike the Panthers, survived the period,  continuing their activity into the 1990s at least. Founded in 1970, (45 Fairmount Road in Brixton Hill was an early contact address) the BUFP adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology – unlike the UK Panthers, they “sought more actively to work with white radical groups than most black groups did, not because they were white but because these groups shared or had similar ideological orientations as the group, that is to say, they placed the emphasis on class, not colour/race or gender.” Whereas the Black Panther Movement ‘placed the emphasis on cultural awareness and the unity of all blacks, and were therefore regarded  –  using the American term popular at the time  –  as ‘cultural nationalists’.  This meant that African history, culture, dress, hairstyle and so forth were of predominant importance to them.  So too were events in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Third World.

Looking back, ex-members could see how this manifested in a more rigid format:

We were much more Marxist and we had a different ideology. Our discussions would be about the Russian Revolution and about things which were completely alien really to who we were… We chose Russia and then China as the way. Whereas the Panthers didn’t have that much of a Maoist ideology.” (Leila Howe).

Perhaps the difference in emphasis partly explains why the Panthers had largely fragmented by the mid-70s, and the BUFP lasted a couple of decades longer; a question Harry Goulbourne considers in Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain. ‘Cultural nationalism’ perhaps had a stronger appeal at the time, but its susceptability to being co-opted, funded, and institutionalised by the leftwing element of the local state was maybe much greater than the more uncompromising class positions of the BUFP. Did the latter survive by refusing to be gradually assimilated into the local authority-GLC supported hinterland? But on the other hand, it’s also true that sometimes the most exciting and forward thinking projects do rise up and collapse quickly; there’s a role for refusing to concrete yourself into a long, rigid existence, but instead moving on to other battles and pushing new boundaries.

The BUFP were still going in Brixton in the 1990s, still involved in community organising, for instance in the Orville Blackwood Community Campaign around 1993-4, protesting the killing of local man in a mental health prison and supporting similar cases.

The onslaught of government funds

Hand in hand with the stick of state repression, came the carrot of state funding:  “The government had unveiled their Urban Aid program in 1968, at first, without much impact. Slowly, they filtered small sums of money into the black community, aimed, they said, at ameliorating the problems of young blacks. The programme was conceived in the home office Children’s Department, and its major thrust was the social control of young blacks in revolt. The funds cascaded, eventually, under the Inner City Partnership and the Community Relations Self-Help programme. Millions of pounds have been poured into the black communities. By 1973, these radical Black Power organisations, now considerably weakened by state repression, crumbled before this onslaught of government funds. Young cadres, once headed for the Panthers, now gathered around government financed projects. Organisations, which were once autonomous and politically vibrant, were now transformed into welfare agencies which extended the crippling welfare state into every area of the black existence.”
(Race Today)

A plethora of black organisations emerged in Brixton, some operating in complete rebellion against what they saw as racist white society, some attempting to make their way within the existing structures, and numerous shades of opinion in between. Many eventually gained recognition, and official funding from either Lambeth Council, the GLC, or other bodies. This caused its own problems and dilemmas: there’s no doubt many worthwhile projects survived longer and expanded, doing much useful local work, through these grants. There’s also no doubt that it caused fierce divisions (as Race Today‘s comments, below, illustrate); council funding did tend to handicap activity that challenged the council, eg on its policies regarding black people, re housing, jobs etc., as well as the thorny questions of who gets the money, and who doesn’t – not in itself unconnected to class relations and ambitions within the black community. But another abyss remained, that autonomous projects that started with nothing, became used to operating with state handouts, and was in many cases unable to carry on or return to a hand to mouth existence when the moneybelts tightened. This applied across the board, with black, women’s, gay projects, and much more. It is also however true that the funding often ceased in the 80s or 90s, when wider change had overtaken many of these schemes – their struggle to survive was as much about a radically altering social landscape, with a gradual decline in the hope and grassroots autonomy that the 60s and especially the 70s has seen spring up.

Just some of the local alternative/radical black groups that emerged in Brixton specifically included Melting Pot, whose squatted HQ in Vining Street helped hundreds of black youth to squat locally among other projects; the black radical bookshop, Sabaar Books, which initially ran as a squat at 121 Railton Road in the late 1970s, then in 1981 moving to 378 Coldharbour Lane, having gained council funding.

There was also the Abeng Community Centre, in Gresham Road, which is still there. In the late seventies, the Abeng hosted an important national conference of black women. It was the first such event of its kind, which hundreds attended.

Later, in the 80s, there was Meridian Bookshop, at 58 Railton Road, another Black bookshop, and the Ujamaa Centre at 14 Brixton Road…

“Three paces behind the men”

Women were vocal and active in this movement; from the first the Panthers, the Fasimbas and others had included a strong and confident caucus of black women. The UCPA had established a Black Women’s Liberation Movement. But this was the late 60s and early 70s – not only was a new black consciousness emerging, but a new women’s’ movement was also questing gender relations, and especially the roles of men and women in political organisations. Women in the Black Panthers began to meet and discuss male-female relations, later feeling the need to organise separately.

“The attitude of the ‘brothers’… often undermined our participation. We could not fully realise our full organisational potential in a situation where we were constantly regarded as sexual prey…”

“every new woman was regarded as easy prey. Some of the brothers were called ‘flesh heads’ because people knew what they were about… The men certainly didn’t understand anything about women’ oppression… Nearly every one of them was a die-hard sexist… things were dominated by the men. We had very little say in anything, to begin with… There was this romantic image of African womanhood around at the time, although a lot of us were beginning to take on the idea that black women were strong and had a role to play, many of us hadn’t reached the stage where we could challenge the idea that we should walk three places behind the men. That’s why Angela Davis was such an inspiration to Black women at the time. She seemed to have liberated herself mentally and fought in her own development…”

Black women’s caucuses began to be formed in black organisations in the early 70s, working on women’s issues, but also enabling women to come together as women, and address common experiences of both racial and sexual oppression. To some extent white feminism was a influence, but some in the black women’s movement attributed far more influence to people like Angela Davis, to the role of women in developing world liberation movements like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and so on…

Black women pioneers included the legendary Olive Morris, who had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. Fro it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”

In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of the Nigerian the police were harassing (mentioned above), was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…

“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton; she was one of two original squatters of 121 Railton Road, in the building which later became famous as Sabaar Books, and then 121 anarchist bookshop.

Olive Morris climbing into the back of 121 Railton Road, from the cover of the Squatters Handbook

Liz Obi: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.

We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out. The building was then re-squatted by others and was used as a black bookshop…’ 121 was to be squatted more or less continuously until 1999, when the anarchist centre was finally evicted by armed police. (But that’s another story.)

Initially the Panther leadership was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…”

After the Panthers fragmented, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, (based at 121, then 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to Stockwell Green).

“We formed the Black Women’s group in 1973… We came mainly out of Black organisations. Some had left and some were still there, but on the whole the organisations we came from were in the process of disintegrating… Straight away we got accused of ‘splitting the movement’, of weakening organisations which were already on the way out… But for most of us setting up an autonomous group for Black women was really necessary at that time… there were issues that related to us as Black women, like women’s work, our economic dependence on men and childcare… it was a chance to put them at the top of the agenda for a change… We didn’t want to become part of the white women’ movement. We felt they had different priorities to us…

We help to set up and maintain the first Black bookshop in Brixton, and joined the Railton 4 Campaign over police harassment. We also mobilised the community in Brixton against the practice of setting up disruptive units, and helped in the campaign for parental rights.  As the first autonomous Black women’ group of its kind, certainly in London, there were no models for us to follow… We just had to work it out as we went along. We were very wary of charges that we might be ‘splitting the Black struggle’ or mobilising in a vacuum, or imitating white women. These were the kinds of criticism Black men were making all the time. We couldn’t be… anti-men… but it felt good to be in a group which wasn’t hostile and didn’t fight all the time… We would not have called ourselves feminists by any means – we didn’t go that far for many years. It took us a very long time before we worked out a Black women’s perspective, which took account of race, class, sex and sexuality.”

The links the Brixton Black Women’s Group made with other developing groups, led on to the founding, in 1978, of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, a national grouping which brought together large numbers of black and Asian women.

Later on Olive went to study in Manchester, where she also became heavily involved in community organising and student politics, and visited China – like many of the early Black power activists (and white leftists too!) she was heavily influenced by admiration for the Chinese revolution (as well as ‘national liberation’ movements in the developing world).

Olive died, aged only 26, of cancer, in 1979. Hundreds of people came to her memorial ceremony a few weeks later, testimony to the impact she had on people’s lives.

Lambeth Council in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department. An insult to her memory? A radical remembered by a Bureaucratic Hellhole, where many of us have withered many weary days trying to get them to sort out our HB claims… Ironically, however, this was one of Olive’s battlegrounds: “The first time Olive made a real impression on me was during my early days in the Movement. It was on a demonstration of residents from the the tenants concerning housing conditions – there had been a lot of fires Ferndale Road flats. Beverley Bryan and Olive had been working with in the flats caused by the use of paraffin heaters and the tenants were demanding that the Council install some form of heating. A demonstration of about 30 tenants made up mainly of women and children, together with members of the Movement, set off one weekday morning from the
flats in Ferndale Road to the Housing Office on Brixton Hill. It was the first demonstration I’d been on. When we reached the Housing Office the tenants demanded to see the Head of Housing to discuss the issues and were told by the housing office staff that this would not be possible and we were to leave the premises or they would call the police. The tenants were unsure about what to do next until Olive spoke to the women and told them that, yes, we
would leave the premises but that they should leave the children behind, saying that if the Council would not meet with them then the Council had better look after their children because it was not safe to take them back home. The women were naturally nervous about this course of
action as they feared the Council would take their children into care but after further persuasion from Olive they agreed to do so and all the adults left the building leaving the children in the care of the Housing office staff. We were not outside the offices for more than ten minutes
before the head of the housing office agreed to come and meet with the demonstrators and the outcome was that the issue of heating provision would be looked into as a priority.” (Liz Obi)

(This building was actually demolished in 2020) The small park in Myatts Fields estate also named after Olive was a slightly less ‘orrible memorial, though it has now been destroyed by the building of a new health centre.)

Dem a Black Petty Booshwah?

dem wi´ side wid oppressah
w´en di goin´ get ruff
side wid aggressah
w´en di goin´ get tuff

dem a black petty-booshwah
dem full of flawdem a black petty-booshwah
dem full of flaw……..

dem a seek posishan
aaf di backs of blacks
seek promoshan
aaf di backs af blacks…

(Linton Kwesi Johnson, Di Black Petty Booshwah)

A whole subculture of state funded black organisations sprang up, according to some observers forming a buffer layer, attempting to impose quiet solutions on the rebellious youth. In Brixton as elsewhere, elderly conservative self-appointed ‘community leaders’ took the queen’s shilling to ‘keep the peace’, ie channel anger and reaction into complaints to MPs, cases to corrupt solicitors, to dissolve rebellion. Race Today condemned them roundly:

“Failed business men and women of the older generation, they have sought social elevation by way of government grants; ruthless in their fraudulent acquisition of government funds for personal use; official society needs them and is willing to use them.  And then, there are the born again blacks who are distinguishable from the mass of blacks by educational attainment. Plunged into the fiercely competitive world of the meritocracy, they cry racial discrimination at the slightest opportunity in order to cover up their individual inadequacies, “they sound radical enough, but on close inspection their hostility to the white working class disguises an even greater hostility to its black counterpart._ Instead of campaigning against police repression, they sat on Police Liaison Committees, but ” It is the most vulgar whitewash. The police representatives are not representing the police and black representatives are not representing the black community. It is merely a cloak to cover up the continuing escalation of the struggle”.

But it’s also fair to say that one decade’s radical can easily be the next outbreak’s respected community leader, co-opted by the police or the Council to help pacify rebellious youth (the next generation…) Early 70s Brixton activists turned up as effective mouthpieces for the police in 1981.

Though repression had been a factor in the demise of Brixton’s Black Panthers, internal divisions had also played its part. Apart from the tensions between men and women (see above), some former Panthers pointed out that class divisions had always been present in the organisation. A number of the founders had been children of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, some of whom had come here a it older, to study; some of these did have a tendency to see themselves as an intellectual leadership, heading up a larger mainly working class membership. “It was started by these middle class children from the Commonwealth and they only came here to get a degree so that they could go back to get very god jobs in their country… So the Black Panther Movement wanted a revolution, but of course, we couldn’t do a revolution in this country… once we were educated and get to a level to understand the system, people wanted to go further, and those middle class children didn’t want to go any further, because they had their jobs to go back to, you know, they had their life cut out for them unlike us who were left here being a plumber, bricklayer, whatever… So they just said look, we don’t want this anymore, and they just went back to their posh position, in Jamaica, in Soto, in India… and that is why it dissolved.”

Tensions had grown up between leadership and membership, sometimes over what seems like disapproval and ‘morality’, attempts to control the behaviour of some of the members, over issues like sex: “you have to be very careful you do not become what you’re fighting against… They [the central committee] would summon people from the organisation who were kissing in the back of Shakespeare Road, and have them before the central committee and suspend them… The youth group, within the panthers, were always very hostile to the central committee…” Some of the core leaders left, partly in opposition to  ‘kangaroo courts’ of members for what seems like either sleeping with the wrong people, or of being too interested in sex.

According to another ex-member: “you know the idea of young people who are doing all the kind of grassroots work but you also had the leadership, they start to fight amongst themselves…”

Another factor was the pressure to increasing militancy. The glamour of the US Panthers, who had made a great play of going armed, wearing uniforms, posing with guns, in military formation and giving themselves grandiose titles, exercised a strong pull; understandable, perhaps, when back people were facing attacks and police repression (though the fate of the US Panthers,  large numbers of who were shot and killed, and hundreds jailed, would show that it is difficult to take on a highly organised and militarised state on its own terms in this way… not to speak of the elitist, macho and authoritarian dead end you can end up). “Some of the young people in the movement wanted to turn militant like the IRA… some of them wanted to wear berets and uniforms… they wanted to arm themselves with guns and raid places… A guy called Wesley… he got hold of two other guys who were on the fringes of the movement, they got hold of guns and they held up a Knightsbridge Spaghetti House on a Friday afternoon (wages day)…” After a six-day siege, with the three armed men (calling themselves the Black Liberation Army) inside, holding several hostages, they were forced to surrender and received long sentences (17, 18 and 21 years each). Allegedly the money they hoped to seize was intended for the setting up of a black school (at least one of the men had been involved in the panthers supplementary schools program.) The fallout from this event also helped to disillusion Panther Party members about the work they were doing.

With the collapse of the BPP, some ex-members allege both of the buildings owned by the party fell into the hands of leading members, in whose name it had been registered legally, who took personal control of it… “Two of the central committee people… we didn’t even know they’d bought houses where we had parties and changed it to their own names and they took it. They’re still renting one, the one in Shakespeare they sold.”

Many of the Race Today collective also went on to do very well for themselves – eg Farrukh Dhondy, even LKJ and Darcus Howe, became very successful cultural figures and/or pundits in themselves. Farrukh Dhondy also sees a consistent trajectory in the early 70s activism and later work inside the cultural establishment. Which is obviously debatable! Was there a difference between the path they took and that taken by some of the less prominent organisations around Brixton that grew up in the 70s? There’s a measure of truth in the accusation that black groups ‘took the man’s money’ and sold out – but another way of looking at it is that they survived into a harsher economic era, became stable, and used some of those state/GLC/local authority grants in ways that did enable lots of grassroots and radical projects to make more space and autonomy for people. If some grants did buy off radicalism and temper anti-council actions; others used that cash to carry on the struggles they were involved in., for as long as the money lasted.

A more pertinent question might also be; who got the money, who controlled the purse-strings? Class, self-confidence, the ability to work the system, knowing your way around the knotty corridors of funding applications, played a part in how certain groups and individuals ‘rose’ in those years. As did a certain amount of lefty back-scratching; witness the connections at grassroots between Labour activists, community activists, some black radicals and feminists, even squatters (or more accurately, a section of all these), in the early ’70s. Grassroots links in the early ’70s evolved into networks of power in 1980s/90s inside councils, the Labour Party, the charitable and NGO sectors…

Activists shared not only demos and meetings, but also a language, and often a perception of the world and how things worked. If moderation as you get older, or a more realpolitik approach, is somewhat inevitable, those connections can also help the right people find comfortable niches in the structures that they began by fighting… To some extent people see this as achieving something of the change they demanded (and in small ways this may even be true); but change sometimes means only change for YOURSELF. For those without the connections, much of daily life remains the same.

The moderation of aging, being convinced that compromise sometimes can allow you to do some good, the urge to get on, ambition for a cushier number, simply being tired of constant aggro or unpaid social work – the offers of what seem like useful positions on police consultative committees – many factors draw people from one side of a barricade to another. It happens gradually in most cases, people are often not aware of the shift in their own dynamic; though Race Today weren’t wrong to point out that some people are always out to rise on the backs of others.

Living on the frontline

The Black Panthers may have succumbed to police repression and internal tensions; but their militant and organised opposition to the police reflected, and itself, influenced, the culture that had grown up, a culture based in the street and the blues clubs of the Frontline; a culture of opposition to the repressive machinery of the state and largely of disregard to the traditions of employment and respect for the Law, work and ‘getting on’ in life.

As the economic recession hardened, young people of all colours increasingly saw less and less hope in ‘the system’_; for black people especially even the promise of dead end jobs vapourised. The strong street culture that the first West Indian migrants had recreated in the 50s grew and grew, until it became the dominant hallmark of the area – a constant to and fro of young blacks, hanging out, dealing, talking, playing heavy dub, smoking spliffs and drinking.

Increasing numbers of people hanging out on the streets increased the number of confrontations with the filth, who could be relied on not to be major fans of this type of streetlife. Each skirmish wound the tension up a notch.

There was the case of the Railton 4, arrested in Railton Road in June 1971, and brutally assaulted by the police; this provoked large pickets and street meetings in response.

On June 19th 1973, after the Brockwell Park Fair, a running fight broke out between 300 youths and the police. Cops had aggressively steamed through the fair “looking for a black youth who had stabbed someone in a Dulwich road chip shop”. An angry crowd gathered and it kicked off. In response, cops swarmed in from all over South London. Robin Sterling, Lloyd James and Horace Parkinson, were nicked at random, beaten in the copshop, charged with affray, Assault on Police, Possession of offensive weapons. They were found guilty in March 1974, and got three-year sentences. There was an  outcry; especially about Robin Sterling, who was only fifteen. While community leaders like Rudy Narayan and Courtney Laws launched appeals and mitigating pleas, a mass meeting of 70 schoolkids, very militant, aged 9-15, called by the Tulse Hill Students Collective (based around pupils at Tulse Hill School), organised a 1000-strong kids demo from Kennington Park past Camberwell Magistrates Court, through Brixton, past Tulse Hill School to Brockwell Park, and sparked a strike in several South London schools. The Tulse Hill Collective was influenced by the local Black Panthers; including the school’s most notable radical ex-pupil, local Dub poet, former Black Panther, member of the Race Today Collective  – Linton Kwesi Johnson… Other former Tulse Hill pupils include ’80s reggae legend, the Cockney Translator, Smiley Culture, deceased in 2011 in dubious circumstances while being arrested at his home in Surrey, and former Lambeth Councillor, GLC supremo and London mayor, Ken Livingstone.

Robin Sterling of the Brockwell 3 was later freed on appeal.

Throughout 1974 there was battle after battle: hand to fighting at the Railton Youth Club, as the cops raided it; in September, at the Swan in Stockwell, cops stoned windows, then invaded the Swan Disco Club, resulting in a running battle. Seven young black people were nicked, charged with affray, assault on police, possession of offensive weapons. three were found guilty, four got off. A month later there was yet another bundle at Stockwell Tube: a group of black teens coming back from a disco at Caxton Hall were forced off the train by cops who then nicked youths at random, which led to a fight. They were charged with affray, possession of offensive weapons; nine were acquitted, one found guilty of possession of an offensive weapon.

During the 1975 SPG campaign in Lambeth, a pitched battle broke out, after cops beat up a fourteen-year old boy, leading to several arrests.  Police harassment of individuals regularly provoked reprisal. On Tuesday June 1st 1976: Mr Johnson, a 61-year old West Indian, was stopped by police after shopping at Railton Road Cash & Carry. They accused him of nicking the shopping. As he reached for his receipt they pushed him and jostled him; several passers-by intervened and were also assaulted and abused. This led to a confrontation as a crowd of a hundred black youth protested and police reinforcements poured into the area.

During August Bank Holiday 1978, a number of black youth setting off to Notting Hill Carnival were  assaulted and frisked by plainclothes cops, who neglected to introduce themselves before wading in.

In November 1978, the SPG nicked 10 kids on trumped up charges at Stockwell Manor School.

In response to all these events, a politically very moderate Council for Community Relations in Lambeth was set up, to try and bridge the gap between police and the black community. This attempt to shore up normality ended in farce, when in February 1979, the police even raided this Community Council’s office, and fitted up three members of its staff for the stabbing of two cops and a barman in a bar brawl several days before, on the basis that the three men wore sheepskin coats, as did a suspect in the incident. Case solved! As a result the embryonic Police-Liaison Committee collapsed, sparking a Lambeth Council Report into police-community relations. These were the days of the first Ted Knight administration: a leftwing Labour Party group, dominated by young energetic councillors who had emerged from the activist scenes of the 1960s and ’70s, had taken seized control of the Council. As a result, the Council was taking on a left aspect, funding and supporting black organisations, and being critical of the police forays into paramilitary head-cracking.

“Thirteen Dead, Nothing Said!”

On the 18th of January 1981, 13 young black people aged 15 to 20 were killed in a fire at a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road, in New Cross, Southeast London. The police initially stated that they believed the fire was caused by a firebomb, though they later backed away from this, instead targeting black kids present at the party. The fire was widely thought to be a racist attack, and that police were covering up evidence and dragging their feet in the investigation. Family members of the dead received abusive racist letters afterwards.

Black people were enraged at the lack of official action, or even  attention or recognition of the tragedy; politicians and worthies ignored the dead and the relatives. As the banners said: “Thirteen dead: Nothing Said”.

The following Sunday a mass meeting of 1000 people at the Pagnell Street Community Centre (formerly the Moonshot), a black youth centre in New Cross (often raided by police itself, in similar fashion to the SPG antics in Brixton) led to a demo to no 439, which blocked the A2, the main road out of Southeast London, for several hours. From weekly meetings of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, came the Black People’s Assembly, which organised the Black People’s Day of Action on Monday 2nd March 1981; 20,000 black people and supporters marched from nearby Fordham Park through Peckham, Elephant & Castle, across Blackfriars bridge and up through the West End to Hyde Park. There was some minor skirmishing; nothing especially unruly, but the press went ape, splashing headlines about ‘Blacks on the rampage’. The police, in particular, felt large demos of angry black people to be a challenge to their control of the streets. London’s Black population felt they could be burned to death, without much comment, but god forbid they take to the streets in anger.

After the Day of Action, police operations in Brixton (as elsewhere in the capital) were stepped up. The police presence throughout March and early April ’81 was unusual. Even ‘respectable’ residents commented on it. In the first week of April, the police launched Operation Swamp ’81, timed for completion at the weekend. This was intended to foreshadow Operation Star, a London-wide production. Brixton had been chosen for the experimental run. Uniformed police officers were pulled out and sent in again in plain clothes. 943 people were stopped and questioned in the four days immediately prior to the riot, 118 nicked, 75 charged. The police claim that Brixton was chosen because it has high figures for street crime. But to young blacks in the area, the operation was a show of police strength – a boast (partly a response to the New Cross march) that no one but the Met would rule the streets.

It was obviously calculated that the people of Brixton would accept it. The boys in blue were winding things up to an unbearable pitch. At one youth club, the general view was put into words: “Retaliation MUST come soon, this is too much.”

The inevitable result was the April 1981 Brixton Riot.


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More Reading

This is an admittedly inadequate article, conceived as a chapter in past tense’s so far unfinished project on the past and present of rebellious and underground Brixton. It’s a work in progress, which was put aside in 2007, and is yet to be finished. A longer, more researched version is hopefully to appear in the near future, though we haven’t yet completely worked out in what form.

For now, people interested in reading more about police-community relations in this period, would benefit from looking up:

  • The Final Report of the Working Party Into Community/Police Relations in Lambeth, London Borough of Lambeth, January 1981. (A ‘Final Report’… produced 3 months before the April ’81 Riot…the irony!).

Periodicals

  • Race Today magazine, numerous issues.
  • The Leveller magazine.

Newspapers

  • South London Press.
  • Brixton’s Own Boss, a radical community newspaper in the 1970s.

Books

  • Do You Remember Olive Morris? produced by the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, 2010.
  • Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, Trevor & Mike Phillips
  • Heart of the race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, 1985.
  • The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An oral history and photography Project, published by Organised Youth. Produced for a exhibition in Brixton 2013 – some audio and photos from this project are online here
  • A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance, A. Sivanandan.

Articles

  • Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain, The David Nicholls Memorial Lectures, No.2, 2000, Harry Goulbourne.
  • Writing our own History: Talking Personal, Talking Political (on history of the Brixton black Women’s Group), in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife no 19, 1990.

Spotlight on London’s squatted streets: Villa Road, Brixton

Villa Road, Brixton, was once one of the UK’s most famous squatted streets; many of the houses that remain in the road today are part of housing co-ops which trace their origin to the squats of the 1970s.

Brixton, late 1960s: A century and a half of social change had transformed a prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

In response the local Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

Imaginative depiction of ‘Brixton Towers’ plan for the Villa Road area

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, (part of Coldharbour Lane was to have been turned into an urban motorway under the Ringway plans…)

Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had  ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised, and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac on the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this target was never met.

By the early 70s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, and an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough. Villa Road became a centre of both.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness. Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups – one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organising in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help. Tenants’ groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees, with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

The demolition of squats in Brixton Road, early 1970s.

In Villa Road, just north of Brixton’s town centre, empty houses cleared for the Brixton Towers plan had been gradually squatted between 1973 and 1976. The houses had in many cases been gutted or smashed up by the council as they became empty, or had been squatted, to be rendered totally unliveable in, in an attempt to deter squatters from moving in or staying. This was a policy used across the borough. In some cases this got highly dangerous: squatted houses in Wiltshire Road (which adjoins Villa Road) were smashed with a wrecking ball while an old woman was still living in the neighbouring basement, while squatters were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in Lambeth Housing Department thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

However sabotage of houses didn’t deter people moving into Villa Road:

“We would go along perhaps late at night and get in the houses and get the electricity sorted out and then help the people to clear out the houses and make them habitable really. When we moved into the houses, they had had council wreckers in them who had broken a lot of the fabric of the houses. They broke the toilets and they poured concrete down them. The broke a lot of the windows, they tore up floorboards and pulled down ceilings. And we all set to fix them, and when I look back on it, the sort of things we did were quite astounding. Because they had poured concrete down the drains, it meant that you had to dig up the connection to the main sewers out in the street. We just used to dig up the whole lot and connect it up to the mains. What do you remember about that house, 39, when you got there?
-How terribly filthy… it was, and…
-No floorboards…
-No, no floorboards.
-There was an old guy who had shell-shock, caught him living there.
-That’s right.
-The basement was full of excrement,
-because he had mental health problems.

-It needed a lot of cleaning up. We went out skipping
– skipping was going round and looking in the skips that were on the streets and… collecting whatever it was you needed. So that was, you know… There were two activities, skipping and wooding. Wooding was going out and reclaiming all the wood from the houses that were being demolished, and, you know, you basically built your environment. In winter, the ice was on the inside of the windows. Heating was like one bar, one of those long fires mainly for bathrooms, I think. We used to cook on that as well, beans on toast – total fire hazard. The wiring was totally bent and, you know, illegal, the gas was. It was, you know… I remember seeing a huge rat coming up from the basement at one time. Yeah, it was pretty rough.”  

As houses were slowly renovated, Villa Road became home to several hundred people, residents who created lots of alternative projects: An informal economy evolved, though partly subsidised by the various DHSS giro payments of residents (some of who used to drive the van the good quarter mile to the dole office or post office to sign on or cash in, by some accounts!) The communal arrangements included a food co-op, (based on vegetables skipped from New Covent Garden market in Nine Elms), a ‘pay what you can’ street café, a medical service run by Patrick and Maureen Day, who were both qualified GPs (‘Check up for

Villa Road graffiti, 1977.

the price of a smoke’, and an adventure playground for kids A women’s group formed c.1975-6; a musical collective was set up around the same time (at least 3 bands formed here too) The street had its own newspaper, the Villain, edited by squatting activist (and now transport guru, cycling advocate, and Labour Party politician) Christian Wollmar…

As with elsewhere in the squatting movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a mix of people from a variety of backgrounds, though a core of the original group that kicked of the occupation of the street included a number of   white, middle class graduates, some of who had been to Oxford and Cambridge universities.   Politically, there was an early contingent from left groups like the International Marxist Group, though spiced with a typically 70s hotchpotch of new age therapies and, er, cults…

No 31 Villa Road, was, for a while, the base for the more IMG-oriented types.

“There were two influences on us. One was obviously Marx. We were Marxists, we saw ourselves as Marxists. We were in things like Marxist reading groups and we studied Marx. But we were also influenced by people like Laing and Cooper and were into the death of the nuclear family. This rejection of the nuclear family was born of an intellectual analysis which saw the family as an essential unit of a capitalist society. We felt it was necessary – or should be possible – to have supportive, economically viable, emotionally rewarding relationships, familial sexual relationships, with people without creating, or commodifying as we like to call it, commodifying the family unit. We had a lot of theories around the family unit being the building block of capitalism. These beliefs made life complicated at the squatters’ resource centre that Paul helped to run. If people within a sexual relationship had or wanted… to have an intimate physical relationship, whether it was sexual or not, with other people, then that had to be acknowledged and it had to both be acknowledged by both partners, but also allowed to happen. It was agonising, because you were supposed to say it before you do it, not just come back and say, “Oh, by the way, I’ve bonked Bill.” You would…have to explore the feelings you had, the pressures – emotional and sexual – on you and the other person with the group or with the people it directly impacted on before you did the deed. I mean, I don’t know anybody who like thought they want to get married. I certainly didn’t think I wanted to get married and I consider myself proud never to have got married. And it is quite different again now, but, yeah, I mean, nuclear family… a lot of us had come from pretty unpleasant nuclear families. And that does open up ideas for how you might live. It seemed that the nuclear family was really in crisis. And…you know, the idea of a stable couple having children was not really part of most people’s experience in that particular kind of sub society, you know. And it also implied a degree of isolation from others. I mean, there was a great collectivist vibe at that time. How you live together was very much open to question, and I think we…partly just out of necessity, but we tended to live in communes, and that seemed as if that was the way that that could work more generally in society.”

No 12, however, became the base for the ‘Primal screamers’… Jenny James was a follower of both communist sexologist Wilhelm Reich, and Californian psychotherapist Arthur Janov, who had developed a therapy known as primal scream, in the course of which patients relived the trauma of their own birth.
Despite having no formal training, Jenny set up a primal therapy commune in Donegal in Ireland. At the same time, she established a sister commune in a squat at number 12 Villa Road.

‘Villa Trek’ cartoon, spoofing Star Trek

“The idea was that therapy should not be the preserve of the moneyed bourgeoisie, but should be available free of charge to anybody. I was called the black sheep of the… Oh, I’d brought the therapy movement into disrepute. This came from the big, posh therapy centres. What it boiled down to was I wasn’t asking money. Anyone can do therapy if they go through things themselves. They don’t need some posh training. It was just a question of human empathy and, of course, knowing yourself really well, being honest with yourself. And so I just opened the doors. It was primal scream and it did involve…screaming. Letting… Which was… Sorry, I’m not laughing at that. It was very genuinely felt. It was about letting out your inner anguish. Um, it was noisy. SHE SCREAMS That’s what I say to you! Ah…! It is extremely organic and well worked out. Nothing’s false. It is something that comes out. When things do really come out from very far down in the body, they can sound quite animal-like.”

They can be quite scary. What wasn’t nice was that they were all naked while they were doing it. When you’re six, and there’s a big group of people rolling round the floor naked, you’re thinking, “What is going on here?” There was my friend’s mum – she was the one that did it – Babs. You just think, “It’s so strange,” cos you’re playing out in the garden, you pop in for a drink, and someone’s in the kitchen naked.”

From a Villa Road songsheet

“Our one-to-one sessions were extraordinary and incredibly valuable. I wouldn’t ever regret any of that or want it to be any different. Um, but the downside was the group. Living… The thing was, we’re all there, we’re all feeling really vulnerable. We’re all looking for ourselves. We’re all looking for friends and support and home and family and answers. So everybody was vulnerable and everybody was at different stages of this exploration, this journey. And there was no account taken of that in any structured way or in any way really. Throughout the years, what would happen is, now and then, some of the stronger characters would actually cross the metaphorical line. They’d cross the line, come in, get involved. We had a lot of lovely-looking women in our commune. -They’d form relationships. They’d start to look at it.
-So was that what drew them in?
-The women?
-I would say that was probably obviously a first hook, if you like. But then they’d see and it was very interesting what we do. They’d see that and they’d see that it worked. They’d get interested. It was a deeper way of living. I remember that, um, the primal screamers… The story was… I think it was probably true, too. ..that the primal screamers sort of sent vixens out onto the street to seduce the handsome boys who were on the left, and to get them to scream instead of, you know, agitate or something. I don’t think it was that organised. It sounds a bit of a conspiracy theory to me.
– You weren’t lured in by a woman?
– I was lured in by a woman, actually. So, you never know, do you? I don’t think she was acting on orders. I think she just fancied me. It always reminded me of that film, The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in that one would wake up and discover that somebody else from the street had been captured by the primal scream.”

Other women formed a women’s group: “I think over time we had several different Marxist reading groups going on. The one I remember in Villa Road, the one I remember going to, was an all women’s Marxist reading group. Through that, I think we started to think about redefining our role as women. We were doing consciousness raising. We would go away for weekends and have weekends away and stuff. We did things like…we had a book called Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was fantastic. Women learned about how to have orgasms through Spare Rib and vibrators, which was absolutely fantastic. And, um, I think, yeah, that was brilliant. We read books, sort of Marxist books, I suppose. We did self-examination, which was quite popular in those days.
-What does that mean?
-You know, when you examine… I remember one meeting that we had a speculum, because Maureen’s a doctor. So she could have them, and we examined ourselves and learnt about our bodies. Which bit of your body? You’re getting me so embarrassed! We, you know, we tried to find out where our cervixes were, which was a journey in itself. Do you remember examining your cervix? No, I didn’t do any of that. But, yes, that was going on. Lots of use of mirrors.”  

Some on Villa Road saw their inner world as the route to changing society. Luise Eichenbaum had come to London from New York as a trained psychotherapist, attracted by British feminist writing. From her squat in Villa Road, she set up the Women’s Therapy Centre with Susie Orbach, believing that therapy could be harnessed to left-wing goals. “For me, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy absolutely came right out of my political activity, because, as a feminist, we really understood that in order to change one’s self, you couldn’t just say, “I no longer want to be this person, the person I was raised to be, “the little girl raised to be a certain kind of feminine character, “who defers to people, who is submissive, who feels insecure, who doesn’t feel entitled and so on.” We knew that we no longer wanted to be that person, and so, if one wanted to change deeply, we had to look to the unconscious. I think people came to see that bringing change wasn’t just about changing physical social aspects of society. I think people started to recognise that change actually maybe has a psychological dimension, an internal dimension, as well.” 

To some extent, the Villa Road community attempted to govern itself outside the scope of the law beyond:

“Would you ever have called the police?
-No.
-What did you do instead?
-Well, where there were instances of theft and so on within the street, then those were dealt with at street meetings. One incident I remember, we jailed the guy for a week, I believe. Everyone was losing their stereos and, um… we eventually managed to catch this young, black guy, who was, I think, 15 at the time. And, um, so…he said that he had been thrown out of home, that he had nowhere to go and he was stealing all this stuff so that he could survive. And so in typical Villa Road fashion, we held a street meeting, emergency street meeting, what to do about him. And we decided that we would give him a home, give him somewhere to live and we would give him money. And so he lived with us then.”

As with other squatted streets of the era, the leftist political slant of many occupants led them into taking part in solidarity action with other struggles that were going on. Villa Road residents regularly joined picket lines at strikes like Grunwick, marched in support of striking firefighters…

In response to tenants’ campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Road, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

“The barricades came about because… the, um, Lambeth Council wanted to demolish the whole of Villa Road. This had been their long-term plan. They couldn’t do it because we were living in the houses. But they, I think, probably served eviction orders on us and we decided that we were going to stay, and so, we thought, “Well, we’ll barricade ourselves in. “The bailiffs will come, but if they can’t get into the houses, they can’t evict us.” So that was another form of direct action. We would scour Lambeth, looking for wood, sheets of corrugated iron, barbed wire. There were a lot of building sites that went short of things in those days! And the ingenuity of people to get all these materials together was phenomenal. The barricade in front of 7 and 9 Villa Road was very beautiful, because we painted it. It was a carefully tended barricade. “Victory Villa” was the big sort of slogan. “Property is theft.” That was another of the slogans on the barricades. We were all into that. … The first thing I and the two chaps who moved in with me began to do was to sort out the barricades on our house. We had, um… It was like triple barricades of corrugated sheets and joists, and then more corrugated sheets, then joists and props, all put together with six-inch nails. Then on top of the barricade was barbed wire and a gutter, the plan being that we would fill the gutter with petrol and have bits of burning tyre, so we would have a sheet of flame to meet the bailiffs, before they could even get to the house itself. And we also had this huge, great, big wooden ball, like, um, on the ball and chain, but this was made of wood with big six-inch nails stuck in it, on the end of a rope, that you could swing and it would lazily move in front of the house as another disincentive to come anywhere near us.”

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ previous support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre, and for an unemployed building workers march. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor terrace in Vauxhall, the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

In November 1976, the Villa Roaders launched an ‘Agitvan’ to tour the streets of the Borough spreading the word about life in Villa Road… These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy.  When Lambeth Council attempted to push through its demolition policy by destroying the squatted street at St Agnes Place in January 1977, Villa Roaders went off to support the occupants:

“Very early in the morning, we found out that the council were moving in bulldozers, there were large busloads of police turning up at the end of the street, and all the rest of it. We all shot off down there. Quite a lot of the residents had already climbed up onto the roofs, basically saying, “If you’re going to knock the house down, you’ll have to knock us down with them!” Got all the council workers digging up the pipes, down at the front. They filled the drains with cement, and took out water and gas pipes. They really went to town to make sure they were uninhabitable. In this picture, you can see a protester. He’s one of the squatters who tied a rope round his waist… There was a few of them. ..and actually walked across the top of this, what’s left of the main framework of the house. We, together with the lawyers from the Law Centre, managed to get an emergency High Court injunction by midday or one o’clock that day, forcing the council to withdraw their equipment, ‘and to leave us alone.’ St Agnes Place was saved, and the council was publicly and humiliatingly defeated. Lambeth Council had to rethink its approach.”

Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…

Villa Road was still under threat – in fact the barricades stayed up for another two years…

The following account of the battle to save Villa Road was nicked from Squatting: the Real Story, published in 1979.

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Victory Villa Challenging the planners in South London

(Squatting: the Real Story, Chapter 12) by Nick Anning and Jill Simpson

The Planners’ Plan

The area around Villa Road is still rather quaintly labelled ‘Angell Town’ on the maps; a legacy of a past which includes the old manorial estate of Stockwell and the eccentric landowner John Angell who died in 1784.

To those who live here now, this is part of Brixton in the London Borough of Lambeth with the market and the Victoria Line tube station a few minutes walk away.

Planners’ vision for central Brixton, late 1960s

But the change wrought in just a few years by Lambeth Council’s planners has been far more radical than that gradual transformation. The majority of houses which stood in 1965 have been demolished and Villa Road too, would have disappeared if the planners had had their way. The fact that most of it still stands is the result of a protracted battle between the squatter community and the Council’s bureaucrats and councillors.

The origins of this battle can be found in The Brixton Plan, an intriguing document produced by Lambeth in 1969, and in the events that led up to its publication. Indeed, Villa Road’s very existence as a squatter community arises from the Plan, its initial shortcomings, its lack of flexibility in the face of economic changes and the refusal of leading Lambeth councillors and planners to engage in meaningful consultation. Their intransigence in refusing to admit that the plans might be wrong or open to revision was a further contributing factor.

The Plan had its roots in the optimistic climate of Harold Wilson’s first government in the early sixties. The Greater London Council (GLC) asked the recently enlarged London boroughs to draw up community plans in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies. Lambeth responded eagerly to this prompting, only too anxious to establish itself as one of the more enterprising inner London boroughs.

The scale and scope of its redevelopment plan was tremendously ambitious. Lambeth was to be transformed into an even more splendid memorial to the planners’ megalomania than neighbouring Croydon with Brixton as its showcase. Brixton town centre was to be completely rebuilt, incorporating a huge transport interchange complex where a six-lane highway, motorway box, main line railway and underground intersected.

Brixton’s social mix was to completely change with middle-class commuters flocking south of the Thames, to bring renewed prosperity and to rejuvenate business and commerce. Ravenseft, the property company which gave nearby Elephant and Castle its unloved redevelopment, expressed interest in the plan for Brixton. Tarmac, the road building firm, was given permission to build an office block on condition it helped to fund a new leisure centre. The Inner London Education Authority talked of new schools and a new site for South West London College. The dream seemed possible.

The plan would involve demolishing the fading bastions of Brixton’s Victorian and Edwardian splendour, epitomised by the very name Villa Road. These houses were to be replaced with modern homes for the working class of Lambeth. Angell Town was zoned for residential use, Brixton Road was to become a six-lane expressway and three proposed new housing developments (Brixton Town Centre, Myatts Fields and Stock-well Park Estate) would completely remove old Angell Town from the map. About 400 houses were to be demolished and their occupants ‘decanted’. Some low rise, high density modern estates were to be constructed but at the core of the plan was the construction of five 52 storey tower blocks. Brixton Towers was the apt name chosen for this development which, at 600 feet high, was to be the highest housing scheme outside Chicago. A large park was planned, in line with the GLC’s recommendations, to serve the 6,000 residents of the new estates. The scheme was a tribute to the planners’ megalomania.

The aim seems to have been to establish pools of high density council housing with limited access, restricting traffic to major perimeter roads where a facade of rehabilitated properties would give a false respectability to a disembowelled interior. Stockwell Park Estate, the first of the three estates to be completed, has already proved the disastrous nature of this type of development. Completed in 1971, it has suffered from dampness, lack of repairs and vandalism. For several years, its purpose-built garages remained unused and, until recently, it had a reputation as a ‘sink estate’ for so-called ‘problem families’.

In the heady climate of the sixties, this type of ‘macroplanning’ was taken as approved by the ballot box and by public enquiries. It was assumed that the professional planners ‘knew best’ and the majority of Lambeth’s 300,000 population were unaware of, let alone consulted about, the far-reaching nature of these plans.

First stirrings

In 1967 Lambeth Council obtained a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) on the Angell Town area, despite a number of objections at the public enquiry. The familiar pattern of blight set in. Residents, promised rehousing in the imminent future, no longer maintained their houses as they were soon to be demolished. Tenants in multi-occupied houses found it increasingly difficult to press the Council for repairs and maintenance, and tried to obtain immediate rehousing. The long years of Labour dominance in Lambeth were interrupted with three years of Tory rule but this was of little consequence to the monolithic plan. It drew support from Conservatives and Labour alike, although a radical caucus in the Labour Party known as the ‘Norwood Group’ began to voice misgivings during Labour’s spell in opposition. By the time Labour regained control in 1971, Angell Town was a depressed and demoralised area, as voting figures for the ward in local elections showed. Though staunchly Labour, turn-out in Angell Ward has been the lowest of all Lambeth’s 20 wards since 1971, averaging only about 25 per cent of the electorate.

The newly returned Labour administration of 1971 contained a sizeable left-wing influence through the Norwood Group and had high hopes of cutting back the massive 14,000 waiting list for council homes. However by now they were prisoners of processes originating with the Plan. Population counts in clearance areas were proving inaccurate, mainly because live-in landlords, multi-occupiers and extended families were reluctant, through fear of public health regulations, to give full details of the number of people in their houses. As ‘decanting’ took place from development areas, more and more people began to find themselves ineligible for rehousing, or were given offers of accommodation unsuitable for their needs. Most houses were boarded up or gutted, adding to blight. Homelessness grew rapidly.

Despite the Labour Group’s optimism, the building programme slowed down. Lambeth’s target of 1,000 new homes per year from 1971-8 was never met. Many people, particularly Labour Party members, began to realise that sweeping clearance programmes destroyed large numbers of houses in good condition as well as unfit ones. With a tighter economic climate and a Conservative Government opposed to municipalisation in office, some of the steam had already gone out of Lambeth’s redevelopment plans by 1971, only two years after the publication of The Brixton Plan.

The neighbourhood council

The Norwood Group of councillors both paralleled and reflected the upsurge of radical, libertarian and revolutionary politics in Brixton during the early seventies. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people in the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised.

The St John’s Street Group was one of several street groups set up in 1972 under the wing of the Neighbourhood Council. Its membership included residents of both Villa Road and St John’s Crescent as the two streets were suffering from blight arising out of the same plans. Most of the immediate area was scheduled to be pulled down to form part of the new Angell Park. Villa Road tenants wanted rehousing while those in neighbouring St John’s Crescent were campaigning about the poor state of repair of their properties. The Street Group began a series of direct actions (eg a rent strike and the dumping of uncollected rubbish at the nearby area housing office) to put pressure on the Council. As a result, many Villa Road tenants were rehoused and their houses boarded up. Most also had their services cut off and drains sealed with concrete to discourage squatting. More sensibly, a few of the houses were allocated on licence to Lambeth Self-Help, a short-life housing group whose office was round the corner in Brixton Road.

Squatters enter the fray

Some of the Neighbourhood Council activists moved into No 20 Villa Road, one of the houses handed over to Lambeth Self-Help, in early 1973. That summer another house in Villa Road was squatted. No 20 became the centre of St John’s Street Group activity, providing an important point of contact with the Neighbourhood Council, Lambeth Self-Help and unofficial squatters. In 1974, other houses on Villa Road were squatted, mainly by groups of homeless single people. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity which was to be the strength of the Villa Road community. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda.

Meanwhile, the Labour Council was moving to the right and a strong anti-squatter consensus had begun to emerge, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chairperson of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters. Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In fact, the autumn of 1974 saw the formation of All Lambeth Squatters, a militant body representing most of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

The rightward-leaning Council took all the teeth out of the Neighbourhood Councils and the one in Angell Ward, torn by internal disputes, ceased to function by the end of 1973. That was not to say that the issue of redevelopment for Angell Town was not still of major interest to the local residents. The Brixton Towers project had been dropped, throwing into question the whole plan. Furthermore, the programme of rehousing and demolition was proceeding slower than expected forcing the Council to consider its short-term plans for the area. It came up with the idea of a ‘temporary open space’ which was to involve the demolition of Villa Road and St John’s Crescent.

According to a Council brochure published in June 1974, this open space was to be the forerunner of a larger Angell Park with play and recreation facilities. Walkways linking the park to smaller areas of open space (‘green fingers’) alongside Brixton Road were to be built and a footbridge over that busy road was to link it with the densely populated Stockwell Park Estate.

The justification for the plan was that the high density of housing proposed for the nearby Myatts Fields South and Brixton Town Centre North estates required open space of the local park variety within a quarter of a mile radius. What was not publicly admitted was that the construction of these estates would involve a much smaller increase in the area’s population than had been originally envisaged. Instead of 3,000, the figure was now admitted to be nearer 800, hardly enough to justify the creation of a park that would involve the demolition of much good housing. In any case, money for the open space, let alone the park, was not to be available until autumn 1976, and in June 1974 housing officials declared that the Council would not require Villa Road houses until summer 1976.

Arguably, this amounted to a legal licence to occupy the houses. Probably the Council would have had little further trouble from the Villa Road squatters had it not been for two factors: the continuous programme of wrecking and vandalising houses in the vicinity and the Council leadership’s adherence to a hardline policy on squatting and homelessness. The combination of these two factors increased militant opposition to the Council’s politicians and bureaucrats which culminated in a full-scale confrontation in the summer of 1976.

A week of action in September 1974 led to more houses being squatted and saw the first meetings of the Villa Road Street Group (not to be confused with the by-then defunct St John’s Street Group). The members of the Group had come together fairly randomly and their demands were naturally different. For instance, there were Lambeth Self-Help members for whom rehousing was top priority; single people who demanded the principle of rehousing but wished to develop creative alternatives; and students and foreigners who were in desperate need of accommodation but whose transient presence or precarious legal status kept them outside the housing struggle which was taking place around them.

By the end of 1974, 15 houses in Villa Road and one in Brixton Road (No 315) had been squatted by Street Group members who now numbered – about a hundred. Like in other squatted streets common interests drew people together and gave the street its own identity. The Street Group became a focus for the organisation of social as well as political activities. For instance, in the summer of 1975, a street carnival attracted over 1,000 people. A cafe, food co-operative, band and news-sheet (Villain) were further activities of the now-thriving street.

But it was a community living under a permanent threat and a stark reminder of that was the eviction of No 315 Brixton Road in April 1975. The house along with two others which were too badly vandalised to have been squatted, were pulled down as part of the Council’s preparation for the footbridge linking the proposed park with the Stockwell Park Estate. The dust had hardly settled after the demolition when the Council announced the cancellation of the footbridge plan. The site was left unused for five years and then grassed over.

Events like this tended to harden the opposition to the Council in the Street Group. Another five houses had been squatted during 1975, including those with serious faults which needed a lot of sustained work like re-roofing, plumbing, rewiring and unblocking drains.

The population of the street was now approaching 200. Three houses in St John’s Crescent which had been emptied in preparation for demolition were taken over with the help of the departing tenants. Several other houses in the Crescent and Brixton Road were wrecked and demolished by the Council, still intent on implementing its temporary open space plan.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing – like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees – with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys – like more gutting. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within the Labour Party from the Norwood Group and from homeless people and squatters.

In a sense, Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were the testing grounds for this new policy. Although the Council had agreed to meet Villa Road Street Group representatives in February, its position was unyielding. Twenty-one of the 32 houses in Villa Road were to be demolished within four months and the street would be closed off for open space. Moreover, the Council told the Street Group that when the houses were evicted, families would be referred to the Council’s homeless families unit but single people would just have to ‘make their own arrangements’. The future of the remaining 11 houses was less certain as they were earmarked for a junior school that, even in 1976, was unlikely ever to be built.

The Trades Council Inquiry

It was clear that the Street Group could not fight the Council without outside support. There was already considerable local dissatisfaction with the Council for its failure to change the plans for the area and the Street Group, in an attempt to harness available support, organised a public meeting in April 1976 to discuss courses of action. At the meeting, which was well-attended, it was decided to initiate a Trades Council Inquiry into local housing and recreational needs. This idea was supported by a wide range of people and groups including the vicar of St John’s Church which overlooks Villa Road and the ward Labour Party. A committee including two Street Group representatives was set up to collect evidence and prepare a report.

The Trades Council Inquiry report was to be presented to a public meeting of 200 people at St. John’s School two months later. Lambeth’s Chief Planning Officer, its Deputy Director of Housing and an alderman came to hear their critics and see the meeting vote overwhelmingly in favour of the report’s recommendations. These were:

  • No more demolitions, wreckings or evictions.
  • Smaller, more easily supervised playspaces should be created from existing empty sites, rather than clinging stubbornly to a plan for one large park.
  • Money saved by stopping evictions, wreckings and demolition should be spent on repairs on nearby estates or rehabilitation of older property.
  • The Council should recognise the strong community in the area and take that as the starting point for allowing active participation by local people in the planning process.

The Council’s representatives made no concession to these views except to suggest rather insultingly that the report might be admissible for discussion as a ‘local petition’. They firmly rejected the meeting’s recommendation that the Trades Council Report should be considered at the next Council meeting.

Whilst the Inquiry had been collecting its evidence, there had been a further series of confrontations between squatters and wreckers. The Trades Council had passed a resolution blacking the wrecking of good houses and the Council was forced to find non-union labour to do its dirty work. The squatters managed to take over one house in Brixton Road before it was wrecked (No 321) but another (No 325) was gutted by workmen under police protection. The culmination of these battles between squatters and wreckers was to be at St. Agnes Place in January 1977, an action which attracted widespread national publicity.

Both these wreckings and the Inquiry attracted local press coverage and support for the squatters widened. Several Norwood councillors, prompted by a letter from the Street Group, began to give active support as well as inside information on the Council’s position. Links with the local labour movement were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

To the barricades

With careful timing, the Council made its initial response to the Inquiry’s report the day after it was released when all the houses occupied by the Street Group (except those on the school site) received county court summonses for possession. The court cases were scheduled for 30 June, a couple of weeks away, and the Street Group’s response was immediate: a defence committee was organised to barricade all threatened houses, coordinate a legal defence, publicise the campaign, set up an early warning system and much more.

benefit poster for Villa Road defence campaign

At the court hearing, the judge criticised the Council for its sloppy preparation and only eight out of fifteen possession orders were granted. Although this was a partial victory, the barricades obviously had to remain. The Street Group embarked on a series of militant actions with support from other Lambeth squatters aimed at forcing the Council to reconsider the Trades Council Inquiry’s findings which it had rejected at a heavily-picketed meeting and at getting the Council to offer rehousing to Villa Road squatters. First, the Lambeth Housing Advice Centre was occupied for an afternoon in July and, a month later, following the breakdown of negotiations, the Planning Advice Centre received the same treatment. This did not prevent the planning and housing committees from formally rejecting the Trades Council Report but both occupations achieved their primary objective in getting Lambeth round the negotiating table. The Street Group’s initial position was for rehousing as a community but as the talks continued, it was decided to agree to consider individual rehousing. Staying in Villa Road on a permanent basis was not an option considered seriously by either side at this stage. After the second occupation and a survey of empty property in the borough by the squatters, the Council representatives said they might be prepared to look for individual properties for rehousing. The Street Group’s minimum demand was rehousing for 120 people knowing full well that any offer of rehousing would breach both the squatting and homelessness policies.

In October, the Council made an offer of 17 houses to the Street Group but the houses were in such a bad condition that the sincerity of its motives could clearly be questioned. The Street Group had no option but to reject them despite the strain that living behind barricades was causing. The defences could never be made impregnable and the difficulties of living permanently under the threat of immediate eviction was too much for many people who left, sometimes to unthreatened houses up the street. They were generally replaced by even more determined opponents of the Council and morale in the street was further boosted by the occupation of the remaining tenanted and licensed houses in the threatened part of the street whose occupants were all rehoused.

After the rejection of the offer, no further word came from the Council though it seemed clear that it was reluctant at this stage to send in the bailiffs. A war of attrition set in, marked by two interesting developments.

First, a sympathetic councillor was selected to stand in the by-election of November 1976 caused by the death of an Angell Ward councillor. The selection was a success for the Street Group’s members in the ward Labour Party whose votes were decisive. It was a rebuff for the Council’s leader whose nominee failed to win selection and helped to chip away the right’s narrow majority within the Labour Group, contributing directly to the leftward movement that eventually put the Norwood Group with a left-wing leader in power at the local elections of May 1978.

Secondly, in October, the Department of the Environment (DOE) held a public inquiry over the Council’s application to close Villa Road. Several local organisations, including the Street Group, presented evidence against closure. An inquiry which should have been over in a day stretched to ten. Each point was strongly contested since the Street Group realised that if the Council was unable to close Villa Road its plan for the park would need drastic modification. The DOE inspector promised to make his report a matter of urgency.

The turning point

As the Council still did not have possession orders on all the houses, it now restarted court proceedings against all the squatted houses (except those on the school site) – this time in the High Court. The Street Group hurriedly drew up a detailed legal defence, arguing a general licence on the grounds that official negotiations with the Council had never been formally terminated. Villa Road’s case was strengthened by statements from two Lambeth councillors. The hearing opened in January 1977, marked by a picket, street theatre and live music outside the High Court.

Judging by its legal representatives’ response at the preliminary hearing, the Council had not anticipated any legal defence and the case was adjourned twice. The Council’s reason for going to the High Court instead of the county court was that a High Court order for possession allows the police to assist directly in carrying out the eviction. A county court order did not give the police power to intervene except to guard against a possible ‘breach of the peace.’ Events at nearby St. Agnes Place in January had set an ugly precedent and showed the Council was now prepared for full scale battles with squatters. Over 250 police had arrived at dawn in St Agnes Place to preside over the demolition with a ball and chain of empty houses although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters.

In the event, the St Agnes Place affair put Lambeth Council at a moral disadvantage and had an important effect on events in Villa Road. Labour Group leader David Stimpson had staked his hardline reputation on an outright confrontation but the failure to demolish all the houses and the resulting bad publicity put his political future in doubt. To make matters worse for Stimpson, the DOE inspector’s report on the public inquiry into the closure of Villa Road was published around the same time. It ruled against the Council: Villa Road had to stay open until revised plans for Brixton Town Centre North were devised ‘in consultation with all interested parties’.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft, one of the major backers, had pulled out the previous summer. With the unfavourable report from the DOE inspector and news that the construction of the school planned for the top end of Villa Road was to be deferred indefinitely, the planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969.

By the time the High Court hearing resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise. The judge encouraged the Council and the Street Group to settle out of court as, in the end, the granting of a possession order was inevitable. After some hard bargaining, the Street Group got a three months stay of execution to 3 June 1977 and costs of £50 awarded against it, a considerable saving on the estimated £7,000 the case had cost Lambeth.

June 3 passed uneventfully as did the first anniversary of the erection of the barricades. Indeed, they were to stay up almost another year until in March 1978 the squatters felt confident enough of the Council’s intentions to take them down. No attempt had ever been made to breach them.

With the DOE inspector’s decision not to close the road and the absence of revised plans for the area, the possibility now emerged that the fate of the two sides of the street could be different. The south side (12 houses) backed onto a triangle, two-thirds of which was already demolished for the open space. On the other hand, the north side (20 houses) backed onto a new council estate and its demolition would add little space to the park area even assuming that permission to close Villa Road were obtained. Therefore, the Street Group decided to accept demolition of the south side provided that everyone was rehoused, and to push for the houses on the north side to be retained and rehabilitated, ideally as a housing co-op for the existing squatters. Negotiations were resumed on this basis and Lambeth kept talking: clearly, it didn’t want a repeat of the St Agnes Place disaster.

A new Council

The first tangible gain for the Street Group came in March 1978, when two short-life houses were offered to people being rehoused from the south side. But the most important event came two months later, when a new left-Labour Council was elected with Ted Knight, a ‘self confessed marxist’ and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chairperson respectively. It was a significant victory in that it represented as radical a shift in policy as a victory by the Tories – in the other direction, of course. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Lambeth housing department officials now pressed for the demolition of houses on the south side, to make way for the new Angell Park, and suggested that all Villa Road Street Group members join Lambeth Self-Help Housing. It appeared that a new atmosphere of negotiation was being created but the same housing department officers did the negotiating and the Plan had not been totally abandoned. Eventually the Street Group agreed, very reluctantly, to the south side of Villa Road being vacated, with all occupants being rehoused in property with at least 18 months life. Demolition was to begin on 24 July 1978 and the fourth annual Villa Road carnival was made spectacular by one of the vacated houses on the south side being burnt down as a defiant gesture of protest. All the houses accepted for rehousing were in the borough, though some were in Norwood, several miles away.

The Street Group, left to its own devices, requested details of the Council’s plans for the rehabilitation of Villa Road north side. It’s main aim was to keep the north side houses. Inspired by the growth of housing co-ops in other areas, the Street Group decided to propose a co-op for Villa Road. In January 1979 an ‘outline proposal’ was sent to the housing directorate suggesting four possible types of co-op but with an expressed preference for a management co-op. In this type of co-op, the Council continues to own the property whilst handing over responsibilities for rent collection, maintenance and management to the co-op. Rehabilitation is financed either by local or central government. It was felt that other types of co-op involving the sale of council housing stock were politically unacceptable.

The co-op proposals were presented to the housing committee in April 1979 and formal approval was given for the chairman to continue negotiations with the Street Group for setting up a co-op. The climate had certainly changed and although squatting was still regarded as a ‘problem’, the Council now negotiated rather than evicted, at least with large groups. Lambeth officers were reluctant to embark on this scheme which was entirely new to the borough and instead suggested a joint management/ownership co-op. Houses in Villa Road would form the management wing, and the ownership branch would be in a nearby Housing Action Area. This was to ensure that four or five houses in Villa Road could be used to accommodate large families from Lambeth’s waiting list. It seemed ironic that Lambeth was now short of large houses when the previous administration had operated a policy of systematic demolition of such houses. The planning machine had done a complete U-turn.

The Street Group now had to change its tactics. Instead of militant campaigns with barricades and regular occupations of council offices, it had to get down to the nitty gritty of filling in forms to register as a friendly society and as a co-op, finding a development agent (Solon Housing Association was eventually selected) and working out detailed costings for the rehabilitation. It was no longer a matter

Remaining houses on the north side of Villa Road, early 1980s

of just saving the houses, it was a question of getting the long-term best deal for Street Group members and Lambeth’s homeless.

After Solon had submitted detailed costings in January 1980 (it worked out at about £7,000 per bed space), the housing committee agreed, the following month, to support Villa Road’s application to the Housing Corporation (a quango through which government money is channelled to housing associations and co-ops) for funding to rehabilitate the houses. Lambeth would grant Villa Road a 40 year lease. The recommendations were not passed without dissent. Some of the old anti-squatting brigade were still on the committee, intent on eviction without rehousing for Villa Road squatters. But Street Group members now no longer had to live day to day under threat of eviction – they could dream of still living in Villa Road and collecting their pensions.

Not everything was different. Two houses on the corner of Villa Road, Nos 64 and 66 Wiltshire Road were demolished in April 1980. They had been squatted in October 1976 following an unsuccessful wrecking attempt by the Council. They had provided housing for some 20 people for three and a half years and were now being pulled down to make way for the Angell Park play centre scheduled to start in June 1980. Yet three months later, not a brick had been laid. At least now Lambeth offered all the occupants short-life or permanent rehousing.

The first scheme was rejected by the Housing Corporation but a different plan was submitted in July 1980 involving the conversion of the houses to accommodate 12 or 13 people each, rather more than the number already living there. Conversion costs were appreciably lower (under £4,500 per bed space) and the scheme had, in the words of the manager of the housing advice centre, ‘top priority’ from the Council with support from both council officers and councillors.

Victory Villa?

The change in relationship between Villa Road, a squatted street in Lambeth, and the local council between 1974 and 1980 from a harsh anti-squatting policy to negotiations for a housing co-op could not have been more dramatic. But what else has been achieved by six years of squatting in Villa Road? The squatters arrived late in Angell Town and it would be nice to imagine that had they arrived earlier, they would have posed an even greater challenge to the lunacies of the planners. But, in the event the achievements of the squatters have been significant, both for themselves and for the immediate community:

  • Homes have been provided for the equivalent of 1,000 people for a year in houses which would otherwise have been gutted or demolished.
  • About 25 people have obtained two year licences and 15 have obtained council tenancies from Lambeth.
  • About 160 people are in the process of obtaining permanent housing as a co-op, remaining together as a community. Working with Solon’s architects, they will be able to have a considerable measure of control over the rehabilitation of the houses, retaining many of the collective arrangements and physical adaptations which have developed over the years.
    • Twenty elegant 19th century houses have been saved from demolition and a useful street prevented from being closed.
  • Control of Lambeth Council has significantly shifted partly thanks to the Villa Road squatters.

And, less tangibly, although few people stayed in Villa Road for all the six years of struggle, a cohesive street community was created which many people enjoyed living in. Squatters in Villa Road, like those in other streets in Lambeth which won concessions from the Council (St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road) challenged the complacency and smugness of the bureaucrats and won. That was the real victory in Villa Road.

What happened in Villa Road could have happened just as easily in other blighted streets in Lambeth or elsewhere. The squatters organisation, their use of direct action and their insistence that planning and housing are two sides of the same coin challenged the complacency and smugness of the bureaucrats. Villa Road’s real victory was to prove that plans are not inviolable, and that people can affect and be directly involved in planning processes that determine their living conditions. Considering what Villa Road was up against, that is no small achievement.

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Some of those moved from the demolished ‘south side’ houses in Villa Road were rehoused in council-owned shortlife property – including the flats in mansion blocks on Rushcroft Road, next to the Library in central Brixton. They would face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth Council and then and London & Quadrant Housing Association (after the flats were off-loaded onto L&Q)… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers. However, many of the flats cleared of short-lifers were then squatted again – a mass eviction of 75 squatters took place as late as 2013.

The houses on the north side of Villa Road mostly remained, becoming a housing co-op which survives  – although many of the original residents moved out gradually, lots of other ex-squatters, subversives and other ne-er-do-wells have passed through since then…

In 2006, the BBC screened one episode of a series called Lefties which interviewed ex-Villa Road residents, you can watch it on youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Erp2utEgZp4

Some of the above info was gleaned from the transcripts from this program.

Read a slightly longer account of the growth of squatting in Brixton, with more details on the Brixton Plan,

 

 

Spotlight on London’s radical herstory: The Brixton Black Women’s Group

The Brixton Black Women’s Group emerged from the Black Power movements that evolved in Britain in the 1960s-1970s, initially as an angry response to racism and police attacks.

Black communities in the UK were from the 1960s on often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated police raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname  – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime” – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction. ‘SUS’ was heavily aimed at young black people.

In response to an increasing atmosphere of racism and violence, from police, organised racists, and to the systematic discrimination and deprivation they encountered every day, younger black activists, increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA, began in the mid-1960s to organise resistance. The activities of radical black campaigners and fighters emerging from the US civil rights struggle, in particular the the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, Campaign Against Race Discrimination and others, and the emergence of more self-consciously revolutionary groups: the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UCPA), Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967, and emerging from the UCPA, the British Black Panthers, and the Black Unity and Freedom Party.

These Black Power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on. In tandem with this the movement set up education classes for local kids, running Saturday schools, Black Studies groups, libraries, ran social events, with a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups…

“Three Steps Behind the Men” ?

Women were vocal and active in this movement; from the first the Panthers, the Fasimbas and others had included a strong and confident caucus of black women. The Universal Coloured People’s Association had established a Black Women’s Liberation Movement. But this was the late ’60s and early ’70s – not only was a new black consciousness emerging, but a new women’s’ movement was also questing gender relations, and especially the roles of men and women in political organisations. Women in the Black Panthers began to meet and discuss male-female relations, later feeling the need to organise separately.

“The attitude of the ‘brothers’… often undermined our participation. We could not fully realise our full organisational potential in a situation where we were constantly regarded as sexual prey…”

“Every new woman was regarded as easy prey. Some of the brothers were called ‘flesh heads’ because people knew what they were about… The men certainly didn’t understand anything about women’s oppression… Nearly every one of them was a die-hard sexist… things were dominated by the men. We had very little say in anything, to begin with… There was this romantic image of African womanhood around at the time, although a lot of us were beginning to take on the idea that black women were strong and had a role to play, many of us hadn’t reached the stage where we could challenge the idea that we should walk three places behind the men. That’s why Angela Davis was such an inspiration to Black women at the time. She seemed to have liberated herself mentally and fought in her own development…”

Black women’s caucuses began to be formed in black organisations in the early 1970s, working on women’s issues, but also enabling women to come together as women, and address common experiences of both racial and sexual oppression. To some extent white feminism was an influence, but some in the black women’s movement attributed far more influence to people like Angela Davis, to the role of women in developing world liberation movements like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe.

One of the earliest and well-known of the organisations that emerged from this ferment was the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

“We formed the Black Women’s group in 1973… We came mainly out of Black organisations. Some had left and some were still there, but on the whole the organisations we came from were in the process of disintegrating… Straight away we got accused of ‘splitting the movement’, of weakening organisations which were already on the way out… But for most of us setting up an autonomous group for Black women was really necessary at that time… there were issues that related to us as Black women, like women’s work, our economic dependence on men and childcare… it was a chance to put them at the top of the agenda for a change… We didn’t want to become part of the white women’ movement. We felt they had different priorities to us…
We help to set up and maintain the first Black bookshop in Brixton, and joined the Railton 4 Campaign over police harassment. We also mobilised the community in Brixton against the practice of setting up disruptive units, and helped in the campaign for parental rights.  As the first autonomous Black women’ group of its kind, certainly in London, there were no models for us to follow… We just had to work it out as we went along. We were very wary of charges that we might be ‘splitting the Black struggle’ or mobilising in a vacuum, or imitating white women. These were the kinds of criticism Black men were making all the time. We couldn’t be… anti-men… but it felt good to be in a group which wasn’t hostile and didn’t fight all the time… We would not have called ourselves feminists by any means – we didn’t go that far for many years. It took us a very long time before we worked out a Black women’s perspective, which took account of race, class, sex and sexuality.”

The links the Brixton Black Women’s group made with other developing groups, led on to the founding, in 1978, of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, a national grouping which brought together large numbers of black and Asian women.

In the interview that follows, three members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group give a brilliant insight into the activities, politics and discussions that animated the group.

Numbers in the text refer to notes the follow the article.

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Talking Personal, Talking Political

Originally published in Trouble & Strife radical feminist magazine, no 19, 1990.

This interview with Olive Gallimore, Gail Lewis and Melba Wilson is a discussion about their individual reflections/perceptions by the Brixton Black Women’s Group and is not to be taken as the final word of the collective as a whole.

Agnes Quashie talks Gail Lewis, Melba Wilson and Olive Gallimore of Brixton Women’s Group about its activities, strengths and weaknesses, the contradictions of funding and the complex relationship Black women had and have to women’s liberation movement.

Agnes Quashie: Shall we begin with a history of how the group got started?

Gail Lewis: Basically it was a mixed group that started in 1974; women from Race Today [Note 1: See end of article] and women from Sabarr bookshop[2] who were working in mixed organisations and trying to form a women’s study group. The aim was to a space for themselves to look at the questions of colonialism and the nature of capitalist society, African history and these sorts of things. The object then, was probably to locate themselves as women but not particularly as feminists.

The context of Brixton at the time is important because it was when there was a very big local surge of political activity in a number of fields. There was, for example, a very active South London Women’s Charter[3] group that was a predominantly white women’s organisation but very much focused around questions of working class women’s relationship to work/employment. Some of the early Brixton Black Women’s Group (BWG) women felt that was a women’s organisation that they could have at least some sympathy with because it seemed to be related to questions of class whereas much of the Women’s Liberation Movement was organising in consciousness raising (CR) groups and was deemed to be not really to do with them certainly not to do with working class women as it was thought to be a ‘petit bourgeois’ diversion, if you like.

Something else that women were involved in at that time was the whole move in Brixton and other parts of the country on the question of housing and the demand for empty houses to be given over to local people to be renovated. At that time a squatters’ movement[4] was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris[5], was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in  expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.

This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.

AQ: How and why did each of you become involved?

Melba Wilson: I came to this country in 1977 from California where I was involved with consciousness raising type women’s groups and I had done a lot of things in terms of Black politics and community politics.

However when I came here I was looking for more of a consciousness raising (CR) group. Also I was looking to get connected to the Black community. I am married to a white British person and so I was cut off from the Black community, so in that sense the group was a sort of mainstay, a grounding.

CR was one of my main thrusts in the group and I kept on pushing that; that the personal is the political. But ultimately the group became for me a political education because, even though I had done a lot of work in the States, it was in the narrowly defined strictures of Black politics and basically it was all aimed at getting a piece of the pie, the American pie. BWG broadened my whole perspective in making me more aware of what Black people outside of the States were doing, and what Black people were doing outside of Britain, and in a sense it opened my eyes to the world.

Olive Gallimore: What was talked about little then was that women came out of different educational experiences or abilities or political understandings of their situations but there was the need to move beyond that. I was brought up in West London, I was a ‘single parent’ living in Vauxhall. I got to know other women, single women, women who were less articulate than the other women who were in BWG and I suppose in that sense I was part of this group of women who came in, but I wasn’t intimidated by that because there was some purpose behind it in sharing and moving beyond our current situation. Lots of things were happening at a community level and people were organising around education quite specifically. What was missing at that time was a clear political or feminist analysis of what was taking place and to find a way of using that to absorb as many women as there were. I think later on that created conflicts and it was quite an important political lesson for everyone involved.

GL: BWG was not the first women’s organisation that I had been involved in. As a teenager I had been involved in things like the Soledad Brothers[6] Support Campaign here, and briefly in something called the Black Liberation Front when it first split off from the [UK] Black Panthers[7]. I developed what I considered to be a Black consciousness, I had always thought of myself as some kind of a socialist as well, and during that period, before the late ’60s, I met one of the women who had been involved in setting up the study group and was introduced to a number of Black political events really, rather than a whole active network. Then I went away for a while because prior to that I had thought that feminism had nothing to do with Black women and working class women of any ‘race’. Then I started to read a few things and thought that maybe there is something in this and then got involved in 1975 in the National Abortion Campaign, as the lone Black woman, in the area where I was living.

I wanted a Black women’s group but was terrified because by this time I had also come out as a lesbian. I heard about a group that met every Sunday and I thought about it for a long time and then thought no, I can’t possibly go to a Black women’s group because I’m a dyke, and then one day I just took courage and went I joined the group because I felt not only did I want to be involved in a Black women’s group, but I wanted to be in a Black women’s group that defined itself as socialist and anti-imperialist.

There had to be some form of continuity for me in terms of my previous political development.

OG: For me came out of the Black Panther, Angela Davis[8] era; you know, the ‘most wanted woman in the United States’ and that kind of thing, and because as a single parent I had been working on those issues and like Gail wanted to belong, I got involved. What I wasn’t clear about at that time was feminism, so to speak, it wasn’t something close to me.

AQ: How were you run, was it collectively? Did you have funding?

GL: At that time we would have rejected funding. Our demand was that there are empty houses; we have a right to them as Black folks; we’re going to take them.

The study group used to meet in people’s houses and by the time we joined in 1978 we used to meet in Sabarr bookshop, in the room at the back. Clearly that was not satisfactory but it was a necessary step, because when we eventually came to discuss whether we should set up a centre there were many long and important discussions about whether an organisation like ours – one that was supposed to be revolutionary, supposed to be about change and centrally supposed to be critical of the state in the way in which it controls all Black people and working class people how could we take money from the state?

AQ: What did the organisation consider were its aims and objectives? Did it have a particular kind of politics; any particular labels by which to identify the people who were involved?

GL: We were a collective, but at the same time we had, like all other collectives, different individual women there. We had different forms of knowledge, we came from different kinds of political histories and political understandings, but there wasn’t one leadership position. On the contrary actually, that manifested itself more in organisations such as the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD)[9] than in BWG or in any of the local Black women’s organisations that we developed links with.

OG: I think that individuals were struggling to identify themselves and the community also saw us in a particular way. It was not until later that we sat down and decided who we were and wrote a position paper. It was not an overnight thing that you suddenly had one uniform concept of who we were. There was a lot of individuality within BWG. This is why the identity of the group involved at times a very deep and painful debating, to get those different focuses on the agenda.

MW: I suppose we were all already political women which is what made us come to BWG in the first place. We were all a certain type of Black woman and while we saw ourselves as being very much a part of our community, that did present problems in terms of Black community politics, male/female Black community politics. However, in terms of the workings of the group the coming together around a political basis was what provided the impetus and is what I think got us over a lot of those contradictions – even though we may not have dealt sufficiently with them at the time. For instance, the heterosexual/lesbian divide which is still hanging up the Black women’s movement to this very day, as I am sure you are aware.

At the same time I do think that we did try and deal with these issues, but it was after some prodding. When Gail got up in a meeting and came out to us it precipitated a whole load of discussion, heartache and soul-searching, which was good in terms of the group having to face its own weaknesses.

GL: The group, for most of the years that I was involved, was a heterosexual women’s group. I can remember saying to myself, “I have to tell these women that I am a lesbian”.

I was living with a white woman at the time and I felt this enormous split in my life, in terms of living as a lesbian and with a white woman then, yet being involved in anti-racist and Black women’s liberation politics. But I did not necessarily want to go into a discussion about it because I felt alone. I knew that some other women in the group were lesbians and for one woman in particular it was hidden from the rest of the women in the group for a long time. Granted, there may have been some discussion about lesbianism and what it meant, but in the late ’70s/early ’80s lesbianism was not seen as a political issue; it was seen as something you did privately and was therefore your own business. We really managed to hang ourselves up with that because like every other Black organisation at that time, we had a notion of the Black community as traditional, as homogenous and as unable to deal with difference.

After we got the Black Women’s Centre[10] in 1979/80, a Black lesbian group was formed. I was not a member of that, but they asked at some point if they could meet at our centre, and there was one hell of a furore amongst women from BWG, saying things like, “We can’t possibly have lesbians meeting in our centre, what would the community say? they’ll know”, and all this kind of stuff. By that time though there were enough other women, and not only the lesbian women in BWG but heterosexual women as well, who were saying, “This is crap, are they not our sisters?” So the lesbian group met in the centre but if you talked to any of the women who were involved in that, they never felt as if the centre could be claimed as their own; they always felt hostility.

There are also other questions about other identities and political positions. Some women may not have said that they were socialists as individuals but the group always said it was socialist.

MW: It wasn’t only the lesbian issue that was not adequately dealt with. For instance, I am in an inter-racial relationship and I had great angst about wanting to come out in that way and not feeling that I could. In the end I did pluck up courage and said it and one of my enduring memories is just how many other women in the group were in inter-racial relationships also and we just did not know it.

We were all afraid to come out in that way, which is why my thrust was always the personal becoming the political, because there was that sense that we could not talk about stuff that happened outside in our other lives.

It was like having a split personality, but in a way I felt a bit of a fraud, being in an interracial relationship, coming to a Black women’s group and not being able to discuss that whole other aspect of myself. This is why I pushed for the consciousness raising aspect of the group. Not to the exclusion of the active political campaigning work that we also did and which was the main thrust of the group, but I also thought that other strand was important. So we had these two strands working within the group for very much of its active period. However, I do believe that we began to deal with it in as straightforward a way as we could at the time, given our frame of reference. You have to remember that we were seen as an anachronism within the Black community; we were taking time away from the valuable Black struggle, talking about women’s politics, women’s rights and so on, and that was seen as a white women’s issue diverting our energies away from the Black struggle. There were all these things going on at the same time, which we were just trying to work through on a daily basis.

GL: I was probably one of the most vocal women in the group and I can remember saying, “I don’t want a CR group”. I mean there was an Irish war going on, there was Palestine, there was Southern Africa, there was class struggle in Britain and we had a wealth of information and something to offer. So I wanted to foreground all that stuff.

MW: I don’t think it got in the way of our work. It was left hanging, but it was left hanging while we got on with the business of fighting the SUS[11] laws and fighting the virginity testing at Heathrow Airport[12] and doing a lot of really good work. I mean, we did have an agenda, and in those Sunday meetings when we met from three o’clock until six/seven, the things that were on those agendas were about the SUS laws, about how we could organise as a community to stop young Black boys being stopped and hassled by the police. We organised around health, fighting against Depo Provera[13] injections and all that kind of stuff.

OG: There was also the issue of whether or not the group ought to accept partnership money (funding). As I remember it, the discussion was quite fierce and went on for weeks. In the end it was agreed that we would, but Olive (Morris) also insisted that she be statemented as saying she did not want to be a part of this, based on a political analysis of the state getting involved in the lives of Black people and buying them off.

GL: The cost was that we lost individuals. Women would come for a short period of time and then feel that the set-up wasn’t for them. This was usually for different reasons.

Sometimes they would say, “I am not a socialist”; some of them were more separatist; for some it was not a feminist enough type of group. But I think the key thing here is that it was contradictory. It was contradictory in the sense that I was the only out lesbian for quite a while, but I was also one of the people who was arguing against talking personal, that this was a political organisation and not necessarily a friendship organisation.

AQ: How did you see BWG’s relationship to predominantly white feminist organisations; about the idea of women being in sisterhood, Black as well as white women? Did you have close links with other women’s groups that had a predominantly white involvement? Lastly, what do you think about white women who are involved in politics and struggles pertaining to Black women? How do you see these things fusing together, or don’t they?

GL: Let’s start with the ‘easiest’ one about what other women’s organisations we were connected to. We were connected to many, and we also worked alongside many, and we were actively involved in other Black women’s groups that started. We were very much involved in setting up OWAAD. We were connected to other women’s organisations fighting around anti-imperialism: to SWAPO[14] Women, Zanu Women[15] and with women from Ethiopia, Eritrea; with Black American women’s organisations, with Irish women’s organisations. To some extent we were also involved with women organising around Palestine and anti-Zionism. We also mixed with many other organisations, like the Depo Provera campaign for example. We also had links with, but a different type of relationship with, other white women’s organisations that did not have a specific anti-imperialist focus, like reproductive rights. It was a much more tense relationship with such organisations but we weren’t necessarily fighting against each other.

What is problematic is, because there is scanty documentation about our work and aims, both Black and white women have picked up a very wrong picture of the politics of Brixton Black Women’s Group; saying things like we were completely against free and safe abortion on demand on the NHS, for example. We always supported the demand for a woman’s right to free and safe abortion, but we also said that abortion was not the sole issue. I mean from our own experiences, from what we knew to be happening to Black women in this country and from a kind of picture of the world.

MW: With regard to the second part of your question, I think BWG set itself up to be an autonomous Black organisation and I think that was partly because some BWG members had been involved with white women’s organisations/movement, and had come away feeling very disillusioned by the racism that they found within them; as well as the refusal generally to accept that there were issues that concerned Black women, or that Black women were involved with, that meant that we operated within a mixed (female/male) context within our communities and that we did not see ourselves as separate from our communities in their entirety. We consciously organised as a Black women’s organisation because we wanted to address those things. I suppose that it was a reaction to the racism in the white women’s movement as well, and it was also a reaction to the sexism of Black men, so in that sense we were a consciously Black and female organisation.

GL: I don’t think that we had a principle by which we responded to white women feminist organisations or white women socialists or whatever. What guided us, despite the fact that some women felt extremely suspicious of white women’s organisations, even when they were organisations like Women Against Imperialism for example, was saying that we come from a position of Black socialist feminism; our central concerns are the antiracist/ the Black Liberation struggle, the anti-imperialist struggle and the struggle against capitalism. Therefore we decided that we would work with, we would make alliances with people as and when we could see that they were also fighting for those things. We acknowledged that alliances are not a matter of principle, alliances have to be strategic.

AQ: Was it difficult to negotiate all those different identities, i.e. at one and the same time being a Black women’s organisation, a community-based organisation and negotiating that with wider women’s issues as you say making alliances and also at the same time acknowledging the racism that can come from those alliances and dealing with them? Was it difficult to negotiate all those things and come out with something that you felt was positive?

OG: It was a minefield. Rather than use the white women’s group terms ‘in sisterhood with’ we would say ‘in solidarity with’. This is because we were still working out the racism or at least forcing them to look at that Again in terms of this concept of ‘in sisterhood’, although I did not have any formal contact with white women’s groups, I think very warmly of individual white women who contributed very significantly to my understanding of what was going on. At the time I did not see how valuable it was to me. However, now I can see that it has been extremely important in shaping and giving me hope.

GL: But I think the way we negotiated it, and negotiated is exactly the right word, was because of the way we operated. We would have our Sunday meetings and then we would go off to do things that we had been collectively delegated to do. The strength of that is that you could always argue with other organisations that you were representing BWG. BWG grew in terms of how much respect it had; it was recognised in terms of socialist feminist networks at the activist level. There was a great deal of strength in that because you knew if there was a problem you could always go back to the group to get some feedback and work out how to proceed.

In many ways the most fraught sorts of negotiations that we had to deal with were with the men involved in the Brixton Defence Campaign[16]. After the 1981 uprising we had close links with the organisations in Toxteth[17] by now the women from BWG and the women and men from the Brixton Defence Campaign joined and went to Liverpool. We still had to make it known that we had something to say; that we were not just the providers of space – they used to meet in our centre – and the people who did the typing.

We still had to fight to be heard. I remember there was a big row, on the coach on the way back from Liverpool, between the women and the men and that created quite a big rift between us. Some of the sharpest contradictions that arose,· arose in relation to Black men rather than in relation to white women.

OG: Although it did not affect me directly in my confrontation with some of those men, I know that some very strong sisters were physically quite shaken by that experience.

Where there were differences between the women in those different groups, we could argue quite forcefully about them, but there still remained a great deal of respect amongst us. However that sort of respect was missing in our disagreements with the men and they were often quite dismissive of us in very derogatory terms and they did not want to look at why they were behaving in those particular ways.

AQ: I am conscious of what I am going to ask next, because at times I get slightly wary of the motives behind questions that are constantly asked about the relationships between Black women and Black men. However, having made my qualification, why do you think your relationships with white women were less problematic than with Black men?

OG: Black men, those so-called political men, saw Black feminism as divisive, in the sense that it was splitting the movement and those of us who had a long and continuing relationship with Black men weren’t communicating with them on that political level. With white women that is the basis on which a lot of relationships have been formed. But the immediate problems between the Black man and the Black woman were not analysed in that way; communication was about personal things the way you treat me, the personal not being the political – and I don’t think that the Black men had grasped that. Also they themselves were struggling through nationalist politics and had become quite entrenched in their own sexism and domination of women. It was only a privileged few of those men who were able to come out and look at all these things in a political context, but even they did not really want to spend a great deal of time looking at those issues we were raising because it struck at the very foundation of their own existence. They would have to undo a lot of things to get it right, but they were not prepared to do that.

GL: We were working with them, we were part of the Brixton Defence Campaign, we were meeting on our territory and some of those guys felt extremely threatened. I mean we did have political time for some of them, but others were just jokers; separatist, chauvinist people that we did not have much in common with politically, over and above Black nationalist politics. Even those that we did have political time for felt threatened. I remember we had this Hindi poster with a woman holding a machete type thing and some of those guys would come into the meetings saying that they really couldn’t handle the poster. They would say things like, “I don’t know how to be with you any more, just talking to you individually”. I can also remember being asked, “Do you think that Black feminism is becoming so strong now that all Black women are going to become lesbians?” There was also some disagreement as to how these tensions could be rationalised.

Some of the men and a few of the women would say it was all about personal relationships and others of us argued that it was about politics.

OG: These problems show where we were at that time and I think we have made tremendous strides since then, with still a long way to go and we are very hopeful because I don’t think that we are in a position to cut off any form of voice because we are all oppressed in one way or another. However, being oppressed does not mean at the same time you cannot oppress others. That was always another issue: was it possible for us to oppress each other within the group? As you can imagine some of us said “yes” and others said “no”, but I do think that at times we did intimidate one another.

MW: Not intentionally.

OG: I believe that we can turn oppression on each other: I can oppress you at one time, and you can oppress me on another. Whether it is intentional or not, the effects linger on.

AQ: So do you think the conflicts that came out of all that were productive, even though it was a hard and painful struggle?

OG: In the main.

GL: I agree, but with costs, because we lost some good women. I mean there was so much going on, there was friendships breaking down.

OG: It was too much to handle.

AQ: How did the group change, in terms of its earlier days, to that point at which the group as a collective ‘dissolved’ itself?

GL: We began to document our history. By then we had come to some agreement that documentation was quite important. Before, we would just write position papers which we discussed, because this was a way to encompass the division of interest amongst us, a way to share information, If you look in the earlier newsletters, nothing was given an individual person’s name, besides the poetry and contributions that came from other organisations.

Later it became the case that you could write individual pieces in Speak Out [18] for example.

Another move that we made was to become very definitely and very statedly socialist feminists, actually saying we were a socialist feminist organisation.

OG: We also started moving towards taking up lesbian feminist struggles, for example. But going back to what Gail said about the organisation losing many good women, we have to acknowledge that some of those women left because they did not agree with the direction in which they thought the group was going. Some of those that left wanted to become engaged purely in practice and they thought that BWG was becoming an elitist organisation by, say, sitting down and writing ‘position papers’ on these areas.

MW: There was also some recognition of the personal as well, towards the end. And in fact when we finally closed BWG, one of the things that came out of it was a group called “Sisters in Study”. This group not only dealt with study but with our personal interaction with each other and this was now an equal part of our agenda.

GL: We also moved from the earlier days where we were about creating a space in which women could meet together, for whatever purposes, to being a Black women’s organisation which foregrounded gender relations.as being the object of political change.

OG: Even the day and time that we met was an empowering factor in our lives. I mean, we met on Sunday afternoons between two and whenever, and that was generally a time of day when people stayed at home.

MW: In fact that was quite liberating for many of us, because to get that space was not easy for some BWG women; you know to leave the cooking and all the rest of it.

GL: I suppose the puzzle is, with all that going for it, why did it end?

MW: Many of the issues changed, for a start.

Many of the issues that we were involved with – Depo Provera, SUS, disruptive units – in a sense had been won. At the same time, while we were looking for a new focus, younger women were coming into BWG. I think we began to feel a bit like old fogeys and some of us who had been involved in that ten year period of high activity felt as if we had given as much as we could at that point and that perhaps it was time to make room for the younger women coming along with new ideas.

GL: But they couldn’t hold the group together either. I think that to a certain extent we had won some of the battles but there still remained other issues. For example, policing as an issue is still there. I think a split appeared in the group between women who had been involved in the organisation for a long time and who had come to formulate a ‘shared’ perspective, and between women coming from outside who did not share that perspective and many of whom would not define themselves as socialist. There were some who did not see the campaigning issues as being the same ones as we would have.

OG: Also some people were just physically exhausted.

MW: We were just tired. I mean it is hard to get across the level of intensity during that period. It required a lot from all of us, in addition to the rest of our lives – you know, working and living and families and children and that kind of thing.

OG: There was also the effect of losing certain sisters at that stage in the group; the death of Olive, the death of Sylvia[19] and others was quite a devastating experience as well.

GL: The other thing that happened was the grants strategy; you know, we became a bloody management committee with workers -we became employers. We stopped doing the things that we used to do, like standing on street corners selling papers – or more usually giving them away. We weren’t knocking on doors any more. All we had to do by then was to give out a few leaflets through the council premises. At first we didn’t; at first we would go out and encourage women, but we weren’t doing that any more; instead we just put it through the internal Lambeth mailing. We had become bloody managers, and this is what happens so often. You know, to get funding you have to meet certain criteria; to meet those criteria you have to adopt certain structures and to a great extent the structures dictate the relationships.

OG: Also, those who hold the purse strings know that we have certain unmet needs and goals and it’s like a carrot dangling. I think the obvious thing is that we had not thought it all through, you know; what it meant to acquire those things through those means.

MW: I think we did think them through, but we thought that we could overcome them.

OG: And we might have done, could have done; if we had tried even harder still.

GL: Maybe, if we were still the same group, but obviously we weren’t any more. You see the membership changed and was fluid by this time. Also, things might have worked out if we were centred around a particular project like Southall Black Sisters[20], who organise around the whole question of women and violence and everything that stems from that. We were more amorphous. We were also victim of not only the internal dynamics of BWG but also the fracturing of Black political activity; the fracturing, if not the demise of women’s liberation political activity and the general political environment.

OG: With all its imperfections, if we were to do it again I would still be a member of BWG. But, you know, I take the African saying that there are no mistakes in life but only lessons to be learnt, and I know that my life has certainly been enriched by that experience.

GL: Oh yes, I totally agree.

MW: Definitely, and in that sense it has not finished, because all those people who went through BWG in those early years remain committed to its principles, to its ideals, and conduct their lives in that way. Of course we carry it through in different ways: for example I am a freelance journalist, so whatever I do, whatever I am involved in is informed by those years. Olive is an educational social worker and acts accordingly in the work that she does. Gail lectures in trade unionism at a polytechnic and her work is also informed by her years in BWG. So in that sense BWG lives.

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Also well worth a read for more on the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the wider Black Women’s movement in the UK:

  • Do You Remember Olive Morris? produced by the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, 2010.
  • Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, 1985. Now back in print over 30 years after its first appearance – a vital read.
  • The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An oral history and photography Project, published by Organised Youth. Produced for a exhibition in Brixton 2013 – some audio and photos from this project are online at http://organisedyouth.tumblr.com

Notes on the text
Compiled by past tense

1 – Race Today: Originally linked to the Institute of Race Relations, Race Today was a black-run political magazine, which adopted a socialist position. It moved to Brixton, and was taken over by a group of mainly former Panthers, who had started to drop out of the party. Operating from 165 Railton Road, (above Brixton Advice Centre), the magazine became a strong voice in the 1970s and ‘80s, a fighting magazine reporting on black community struggles and burning issues of the day, and helping to build black organisations, eg the British Black Panthers, and other organisations like the Northern Collectives up in Bradford and Leeds. The journal was involved in several important campaigns that helped to transform both the political and cultural lives of black people in Britain. Many former Panthers became involved in Race Today, including editor Darcus Howe, dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy, later commissioner/editor of Channel Four’s cultural programs.

2 – Sabarr Books: Sabarr Bookshop is sometimes called the first Black Bookshop in Brixton, (though in fact the Black Panthers had set up Unity Bookshop in Brixton’s Railton Road in 1973. which had been burned to the ground when a firebomb was placed in the letter box). Sabarr Bookshop opened at 121 Railton Road, after it was re- squatted around 1974. Sabarr was later moved from 121 Railton Road to 378 Coldharbour Lane, at some point around 1980: the building where the Archives and Museum of Black Heritage and then the Black Cultural Archives were subsequently located during the 80s and 90s. (121 Railton Road was shortly afterward re-squatted by an anarchist collective, and ran as an anarchist centre, bookshop, cafe and gig and meeting space until 1999.)

3 – South London Womens Charter: Probably means a branch of the socialist-feminist current which appeared during the time of the Working Women’s Charter Campaign, which laid down its aim as producing a synthesis of socialism and feminism.
The Working Women’s Charter was drawn up by the subcommittee of the London Trades Council in March 1974. At its height it had 27 groups in towns and cities across the UK and was supported by 12 national unions, 55 trade union branches, 37 trade councils and 85 other organisations; it also published a monthly newspaper. The driving force behind the WWCC was the International Marxist Group and other smaller left groupings. The campaign attempted throughout the 1970s to support women in trade union disputes, most notably at TRICO (equal pay). It worked jointly with the London-based national nurseries campaign over the extension of nursery facilities and against cuts in local authority nurseries. The WWCC emphasised the importance of women pursuing their claims through direct action rather than by taking cases under the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act — the preferred option by the trade union bureaucracy. The women (and some men) active around the Charter in the main regarded themselves as socialist feminists and saw the Charter as a way of taking feminist ideas into the trade union and labour movement.

4 – Black squatting in Brixton: In the late 1960s and early 70s, Brixton became one of the most heavily squatted areas in London, for a number of reasons, but mainly because of high homelessness and a high demand for housing, especially among young people in the area, the presence of hundreds of empty run down houses (many compulsorily purchased for a massive redevelopment scheme which never happened), and a growing counter-culture which adopted squatting for the possibilities it offered. Although a large white squatting scene emerged, many local black youth also began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, from their squatted HQ in Vining Street (which was attacked by racists in August 1983. They later moved to Kellet Road).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were on occasion fractious. Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.”

Read more on squatting in Brixton

5 – Olive Morris: In 1969, aged 17, Olive, who grew up in Brixton, went to the aid of a black man the police were harassing, was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts… Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went through school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. From it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”
“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton; she was one of two original squatters of 121 Railton Road, in the building which later became famous as Sabarr Books, and then 121 anarchist bookshop.

Liz Obi: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.”

Olive re-squatting 121 Railton Road

They faced three illegal eviction attempts, but always managed to get back in and stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and they had to move out. But the building was then re-squatted by others for use as Sabarr black bookshop; and was to be squatted more or less continuously until 1999, when in its the later incarnation as the 121 anarchist centre it was finally evicted by armed police. (But that’s another story.)
After the Panthers fragmented, Olive was involved in setting up Sabarr Books, then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, moved to Manchester to study Social sciences at university, and helped to found Manchester Black Women’s Co-op. She later travelled to China. However, in 1979, aged only 26, Olive died of cancer.
Lambeth Council in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department…
[In April 2020, in the midst of the Corona virus lockdown, the council decided to begin the demolition of this building – putting builders working there in danger or spreading the virus, since social distancing on demolition sites is impossible… and also spreading dust around Brixton Hill during a respiratory crisis. Nice one Lambo.]

Recently interest in this amazing character has revived; there is a brilliant website dedicated to her memory
They have also published a book: Do You Remember Olive Morris?

6 – Soledad Brothers: The Soledad Brothers were three African-American inmates charged with the murder of a white prison guard, John Vincent Mills, at California’s Soledad Prison on January 16, 1970. George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette were said to have murdered Mills in retaliation for the shooting of three black prisoners during a prison fight in the exercise yard three days prior by another guard, Opie G. Miller.

The Soledad Brothers Defense Committee was formed by Fay Stender to assist in publicizing the case and raising funds to defend Jackson, Drumgo, and Clutchette. The case achieved huge publicity and notoriety. Jackson in particular had become well known as a Black Panther, and was targetted by the prison authorities and justice system in retaliation for his political agitation. In August 1970, Jackson’s 17-year old brother Jonathan was killed during an armed attempt to take hostages and free the Brothers. Two weeks later George Jackson was killed in an armed escape attempt (possibly set up by the prison guards). Seven months later the remaining two prisoners were acquitted of the murder of Mills. Jackson’s prison writings have since raised him to important status in radical circles as a modern theorist of US imperialism and racism.

7 – Black Panthers and Black Liberation Front: Brixton’s West Indian community had faced racism and police violence from its inception, increasing in the 1960s, when local police labeled their roaming of the streets to beat up and arrest young blacks as ‘nigger hunting’. In the late 1960s-early 70s, a combination of street resistance and political thinking (influenced by both US black nationalism and African liberation movements) helped give birth to the British Black Panther Party, whose Brixton chapter was one of its mainstays and whose base of operations was around the ‘frontline’ (their HQ was in Shakespeare Road). Local actions concentrated on resistance to police oppression, education programs for black kids often excluded by mainstream schools,
and a lot of cultural expression. Targetted by police but always at the forefront of fighting back… Such luminaries as Linton Kwesi Johnson, Darcus Howe, Farrukh Dhondy emerged from its ranks; Race Today and many other groups also emerged from the breakup of the organisation.
The Black Liberation Front was a splinter that emerged from the Panthers in London, mainly based in West London (notably Ladbroke Grove, one on the other main strongholds of the early Panthers). The BLF maintained a bookshop in Golborne Road, Ladbroke Grove, Grassroots Storefront. It developed links with liberation struggles in Africa and throughout the African diaspora, and regularly organised the annual Africa LiberationDay celebrations in co-operation with other organisations in Britain. By establishing supplementary schools, community bookshops, affordable housing for black families and support for black prisoners, the movement focused on developing Pan-African consciousness, consolidating black political identity and challenging the impact of racism in Britain.

A very basic introduction to Brixton policing in the 1970s, the black community and the Black Panthers, can be read ‘In the Shadow of the SPG’, published by past tense, which can be bought online at: http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past-tense-publications.html and several good radical bookshops in London.

8 – Angela Davis: Leading US black radical, communist and thinker, close to the black Panthers, who remains active and writing today. An academic at the University of California, and also active in social and political activism, Davis was targetted by state governor Ronald Reagan who tried to have her barred from teaching in 1969 because of her outspoken attacks on police racism. She was a supporter of the Soledad Brothers (see above), and bought the firearms used by Jonathan Jackson in his armed attack on a courthouse in August 1970. As a result Angela Davis as charged with “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder” of a hostage judge. Davis went on the run, was arrested and held on remand. Her case became another huge international cause celebre: she was eventually acquitted. She remained active in the Communist Party until 1991.

9 – The Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), a national organisation founded in 1978, by a number of groups including the Brixton Black Women’s Group; it sought to bring together Black women from a number of different backgrounds and political perspectives in Britain. Many of those who set up OWAAD were students living in Britain who came from Africa. Women from OWAAD gave support to women on strike (for example the Futters Strike, in Harlesden in 1979), to women involved in education battles against sin-bins and expulsions, to women fighting the Sus laws; and those facing deportation, and opposing virginity tests for migrant women (see below). However divisions over a number of issues led to OWAAD’s effective collapse in 1982.
Here’s an interesting short perspective on OWAAD’s formation and activities, written by members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group.

10 – Brixton Black Women’s Centre (BWC): The Brixton Black Women’s Group was initially based at 65 Railton Road: later they set up the Black Women’s Centre, located at 41 Stockwell Green, SW9. The BWC aimed “to give help and support to Black women in the community. We do this by: providing a welfare rights information and referral service; participating in a health group; providing meeting facilities; holding open days on themes reflecting Black women’s lives and struggles; having a small but growing library; running children’s projects at Easter and summer holidays.

11 – SUS laws: The massive widespread use by police of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, to stop and search and then arrest, people on suspicion that a crime ‘may have been about to be committed’, led to its infamous nickname – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime” – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed to get a conviction. SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests. Daily use of SUS was a major factor in provoking the 1981 riots in Brixton and elsewhere.

12 – Virginity testing at Heathrow Airport: At least 80 women from India and Pakistan hoping to emigrate to Britain to marry were intimately examined by immigration staff to “check their marital status” in the late 1970s.

At that time, immigration rules stipulated that an engaged woman coming to Britain to marry her fiance within three months did not need a visa, whereas a bride required a visa in order to join her husband. If immigration officers suspected a woman was married, but was pretending to be engaged to avoid the wait for a visa, she would be taken away for an examination.

In 1979, the Home Office admitted to just three tests (after initially denying the practice). The technique was banned in February 1979 after the Guardian revealed that a 35-year-old Indian woman was examined by a male doctor at Heathrow to check whether she was in fact a virgin.

The Home Office initially denied that any internal examination had taken place.

13 – Depo Provera: A birth control drug, widely proscribed in developing countries and to poor women particularly in both the developing and developed world, on many occasions without their knowledge or consent. Depo Provera has been widely linked to permanent sterility and infertility, the development of breast cancer and an increase in a person’s chances of acquiring and transmitting HIV/AIDS, as well as a number of other serious medical conditions. Black and radical activists and feminists have raised the accusation that DP was deliberately used by manufacturers and health organisations (including Pfizer, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Planned Parenthood, the US Agency for International Development(USAID), the UN, the World Health Organisation, the Center for Disease Control, Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities) of promoting DP as part of a eugenics agenda, aimed at reducing the birth rates of the poor, and especially africans and african-americans.

14 – SWAPO Women: SWAPO is the South West African People’s Organisation, formerly a national liberation movement, fighting to free the African country of Namibia from colonial rule by Apartheid-era South Africa; since 1990 the governing party of Namibia as an independent country.

15 – Zanu Women: The Women’s League of Zanu PF, in the 1970s the main Zimbabwean national liberation movement – since 1980 the governing party in Zimbabwe.

16 – Brixton Defence Campaign: In the immediate aftermath of the April 1981 Brixton riot/uprising the Brixton Defence Campaign was set up to defend the several hundred arrested, both legally and politically. Founded immediately after the riot, the first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre:

“The fact that we initiated the Brixton Defence Campaign, took on alot of the leadership, and, as a group, put in most of the work, shows how strong politically Black women had become and how much support there was in the community for the group. Many of the ‘committees’ set up by the brothers in the aftermath of the uprisings had failed. In some cases, the first meetings had ended in chaos. There were all kinds of conflicting interests… We recognised that the police would step up their operations. We also knew that we had to work quickly to counteract the media’s coverage of ‘Black Mobs on the Rampage’ and ‘Black Masses Rioting’, so that people could understand what had really happened.

Anyway, after the failure of the initial public meetings, the women’s group came together to discuss the brief of the campaign. The first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre, and after that it became the base of the campaign. We acted very quickly, using the skills we had to start distributing leaflets, organising more public meetings and producing a regular bulletin. We had two objectives really. The first was the practical matter of getting competent legal representation for the hundreds of people who’d been arrested. And the other was to publicise the police tactics which had led to the uprisings and to alert the community to particular incidents of brutality. We did this by holding street meetings on Railton Road, bringing the issues to the attention of the people. And we co-ordinated with other campaigns and defence committees in other parts of the country so that we could monitor the police operations in our communities outside London.” (from The Heart of the Race, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe)

17 – Toxteth: Otherwise known as Liverpool 8, an area of Liverpool’s inner city, like Brixton with a large black population, and subject to similar tensions around racism and policing. Centre of several riots in the city from 1981-85.

18 – Speak Out: The Brixton Black Women’s Group’s newsletter.

19 – Sylvia: Sylvia Erike, another member of the Brixton Black Women’s Group, who like Olive Morris also died tragically young.

20 – Southall Black Sisters: A black feminist group, which emerged among Asian women in Southall, West London, still going strong today. Established in August 1979 in the aftermath of the death of anti-fascist activist Blair Peach, who had taken part in a demonstration against a National Front rally at Southall Town Hall, the SBS was originally established in order to provide a focus for the struggle of Asian women in the fight against racism, but became increasingly involved in defending the human rights of Asian women who are the victims of domestic violence and in campaigning against religious fundamentalism.
Contact Southall Black Sisters

More here: Gail Lewis talks about the BBWG, consciousness raising and action.

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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

Today in London riotous history, 1982: Evictions & demolitions of squats spark rioting in Brixton

A year and a half after the April 1981 Brixton uprising, (which was followed by uprisings throughout England in July), a smaller riot took place, in November 1982, as Lambeth Council attempted to use a large force of police to evict and demolish many of the squats and blues clubs that dominated Brixton’s ‘Frontline’ around Railton Road.

Since the April 1981 riot, the surface appearance in the area had changed a lot. On the High Street the gentrifiers had been busy at work, welcoming visitors to Brixton ‘and its famous market’ in hope of some tourist trade. On the Frontline, the corrugated iron stretched even further, (then covered with graffiti about Poland – the (Labour Party-controlled) Lambeth Council policy was to erase immediately any slogans about working class revolt at home but not those about such revolt elsewhere!)

What else had changed since the previous year’s uprisings? At least since February 1982, a police helicopter had often been seen hovering over Brixton. It had given instructions to police cars on the Loughborough Estate, where stop-and-search (SUS) operations were frequent (SUS had been a major element in the anti-police hatred that had sparked the 1981 riot). The copter had also been conducting night operations, shining its searchlight all over the area-previously a familiar sight only to nationalist areas of Northern Ireland.

Also the Council had constructed flower boxes in all the open spaces in the shopping area on Brixton Road. Perhaps the boxes were intended merely to prettify the area but they also, conveniently, made it difficult for crowds to gather in those strategic spaces.

Meanwhile the most important aspects of daily life remained little changed. The police had gradually resumed their stop-and-search harassment of working class (and especially black) youth on the streets. Long-term squats on the Frontline were receiving eviction notices. Inhabitants still got up and trudged off to useless and boring jobs, or sign on at the dole office for fortnightly Giro cheques from the DHSS. Even though the uprisings didn’t transform those fundamental conditions of work, wages and policing, for many they had marked at least a temporary shift in social relations – the breakdown of the authority normally imposed by the market economy upon people’s lives, as the experience of ‘shopping without money’ gave a new, unintended meaning to Brixton’s ‘famous market and freed some from the compulsion to buy and sell.

In 1982 a Tory controlled Council (with the support of the Social Democratic Party, which for you young ‘uns was a rightwing split from the then Trendy Lefty Labour Party. They’re all in the Lib Dem shower now) briefly replaced the Labour administration. In charge of the Housing Committee was the repulsive Mary Leigh, whose business interests running a firm specialising in selling off council housing, while she ran the Housing Dept, fit right in with National Govt policy of the time. They stepped up the policy of attacking squatting, by legal and illegal methods. 300 eviction notices were issued in their first few months. Leigh also refused to deal with shortlife housing co-ops, blocking any renovation money for council properties run by co-ops, vetoing licenses on sites where demolition was planned, but not due for years, while at the same time she pushed privatisation of council property, right-to-buy and joint Lease/purchase schemes. The regime also permanently excluded single people from any possibility of rehousing. £9 million of the housing budget was deliberately left unspent and houses allowed to decay. As a result there were soon more empties than ever.

In response to attacks on squatters, some SDP/Tory councillors homes and cars were vandalised: some naughty people kept phoning them up, and all 64 councillors were sent spoof eviction notices on genuine council notepaper, signed, so it would seem, by acting Chief Executive John George. Inquiries failed to find the culprit – some in the council accused other insiders of siding with squatters.  Cue paranoid fallout.

Special Patrol Group attacks on squatters around Brixton were widespread: in Arlingford road, in June 82, they attacked no 51, evicting the squatters, despite the Brixton Squatters Aid network getting 40 people out. Later this house was resquatted and evicted violently again some 6 months later. There had been a small squatters community in Arlingford and Brailsford roads since 1973; by late 84 there were 16 squats, including  ‘The Bunker’, a community caff, which was holding women’s nights and had other events over weekends… When 121 Bookshop was faced with possible eviction in that year, it was proposed to move Brixton Squatters Aid to the Bunker.  Brailfsford/Arlingford squatters set up their own alarm list… 50 squatters chased off bailiffs there earlier in ’84.  Although many tenants there were supportive, there was a minority who persecuted the squatters; there were also some problems with junkies.

But it was the Frontline the Council hated the most. In early October ‘82, some opening shots were fired… several squats in Dexter Road, then the heart of the black Frontline, were evicted and demolished. The Council also demolished the neighbouring adventure playground. Any sign of resistance brought a swarm of cops rushing in. “…they’re closing in on the frontline, with an army of cops, council and social workers. Today they cut off the electric. Incidents are daily. Next week I bet they’ll wreck them…” They did.

THERE’S A NEWMAN IN TOWN…

On Monday November 1 1982 there was a riot on Brixton’s front-line. It was just three days after Sir Kenneth Newman took over his new job as Police Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police. He brought with him his own street credibility learned from the back of squad cars and helicopters patrolling the streets and sky of Ulster. Everyone in the know knew he would one day make Commissioner. He was groomed for the part. In Ulster he was known as ‘Mighty Mouse’ on account of his small stature but ultra-tough reputation. There he pursued a policy of criminalising all forms of resistance, while at the same time polarising the support within the communities given to those at the front line of attack from the paramilitaries.

He succeeded in developing a force expert in all the latest techniques of intensive policing, riot-control, intelligence gathering, counter-subversion and torture. It was the latter that got Newman into hot water when the Castlereagh Detention Centre was condemned for using ‘inhuman and degrading’ treatment. Clearly Newman, having completed his ‘experiment’ now needed to learn a bit more about what was happening in the rest of the UK. So off he went to Bramshill – the specialist police establishment for serving officers – to lecture on his experiences in Ulster and on how he saw the future of policing in Britain and to learn from his future troops just how far they are capable of being pushed. He became “a bit of a celebrity” and gave lecture tours abroad and it was on one of these tours that he made his much publicised controversial remark about ‘West Indians being indigenously anti-authoritarian’ (sic).

BLUES CLUBS

Meanwhile, as Newman was courting power, there was the continuing saga of Brixton’s ‘Frontline’, which consisted of a number of squatted houses and shops in Railton Road, used mainly as ‘Blues’ houses by local black hustlers. These houses provided all-night entertainment and a place to score dope, gamble, and get boozed up. Such unlicensed pleasure was out of the majority of cops’ grasp, while to the local Council the premises in question were but an eyesore, contrary to their new clean-up Brixton sanitisation programmed. Since the ’81 riots on the Front-line, the Council had, in fact, systematically employed a policy of ‘rearranging’ the landscape, involving the destruction of liveable homes (and even the local children’s playground), the squeezing out of shop-owners, and the removal of squatters. With the latter they were none too successful.

BRIXTON SQUATTER’S AID

Since early 1981, some of the squatters in the area spreading out from the Frontline, had got together to form Brixton Squatter’s Aid, an autonomous association primarily concerned with maintaining basic survival. Over the 8 months or so from its inception BSA successfully opened up scores of squats all over the Brixton area, helped to elicit the support of squatters not previously organised around any particular set-up, started a squatter’s aid alarm list for those squatters who came under attack, successfully defended several squats that were raided, and published a regular fortnightly bulletin  (the ‘Crowbar’) reporting on local and international squatting news.

CULTURE CLASH

The two scenes – the Squatter’s Aid Network and the ‘Blues’ Houses’ – rarely came into contact with each other. They had different interests and different viewpoints. Many of those involved with the ‘Blues’ clubs were racist/separatist and authoritarian, especially in their general attitude and treatment to women; they were into their own culture and had hard and fixed attitudes about other cultures. On top of all this, the clubs tended to attract petty hustlers to the area to ‘scare and make out’. For a while there were almost daily reports of locals – black and white – being mugged and harassed and at one point an anti-mugging campaign was begun, producing posters that equated the violence on the streets to the violence received at the hands of cops and the violence of fascist attacks. The muggings and the response all led to a degree of bad feeling.

While all this was going on Lambeth Council periodically made noises about how they were just about to close down the Frontline houses and how local street-crime had to be squashed once and for all.

Threats of eviction were a weekly occurrence and added to the increasing tension. As these threats increased so many of the hustlers began to look for new premises for their clubs. Reports of new sitings came thick and fast and rumours abounded. Some petty pimps even made attempts to muscle in on the nearby homes of existing squatters and if they had succeeded this would have forced an unwanted confrontation. In the end, after many threats and resistance, the tension diminished.

SKIRMISHES & DIRECT ACTION

Such confrontations, though, were minor compared to those that everyone – black and white – faced from the local cops and the Council bureaucrats. After the ’81 riots the police developed a deliberate policy of avoiding Swamp ’81 type tactics. An alternative had to be sought. They made one or two mistakes. Early in ’82, on two separate occasions, skirmishes occurred over the way the cops handled some minor incidents in the Railton Road area. On each occasion the cops were chased out of the Frontline area but restrained themselves from launching a counter attack: they were beginning to learn. For a while Railton Road managed to give the impression of being a ‘no-go’ area although when the cops did show up they did so suddenly and with force. For example, it was not uncommon during the summer to witness police helicopters circling overhead – sometimes hours on end – providing support to an operation down at street level. At night the helicopters would use searchlights (and probably infra-red surveillance devices).

Since the ’81 riots the local Council had gone Conservative (only just, with the help of SDP/Liberal Alliance Councillors and the mayor’s vote) and immediately implemented a policy to get rid of the squatters on a large scale. Very few of their attempts succeeded and the ensuing campaign to resist these attempts reached a crescendo with attacks by local activists on the homes and property of appropriate councillors. Certain Councillors were even sent fake eviction notices on Official Council Note paper – leading to recriminations, accusations and counter-accusations within the municipal offices. The Council had to ‘do something’ to ‘restore public confidence.’ At the same time the cops were itching to sort out the ‘no-go’ areas once and for all…and then came along Newman. The Stage was set.

Newman started the ball rolling with his flying visit to Brixton cop station and to Notting Hill, where he advised his troops that they were to take no more insults from now on and that they were to remain firmly in control of their respective localities. His message: that there was to be a new era of policing: sophisticated and more precise in its methods. Two days later at 4am the Frontline houses came under siege.

BESEIGED

Newman’s troops moved in quietly. None of the nearby residents heard them arrive. It was a smooth operation, well timed and successful. The cops stood guard while demolition workers began their task. By mid-morning a crowd had gathered, but by then the police presence was considerable. Coming into Brixton from Central London was like walking into an act for a film by Costa-Gravas. The only thing missing were the armoured vehicles … everything else was there. The cops, of course, only admitted to a small presence and this mis-information was regurgitated in the Press and on TV. But the reality was that almost every Instant Response Unit, and every other back up unit across Greater London had been drafted in to lend support. Every street leading to the Front-line, together with secondary routes, had been blocked off; and stop and search was being used in a blanket manner. Brixton had been closed down, sealed off and placed under siege.

While the operation was being effected, so some of the squatters in the area, together with some of these directly affected by the demolition of the clubs, decided to march to the Town Hall (in fact a picket had been pre-planned before the cop attack, due to increased evictions). There were about 80 on the march. They achieved their objective and made their protest (all the Political Parties had agreed to and signed the Council Eviction Notice). But the main confrontation was yet to come and it was clear that it wasn’t just one side that desired it.

ATTACK AND COUNTER-ATTACK

The Battlelines were drawn. But then the cops suddenly withdrew all their personnel out of immediate sight and the frontline was left empty like a ghost town. They knew this would have one effect and one effect only: to encourage the illusion that the police had made a strategic withdrawal. The trick worked and people poured in from all over Lambeth and beyond (they would have come anyway after school, work, it got dark, they saw the news) The Front-line drew them like a magnet. The Pincers opened up to let them in and then closed again. Meanwhile on the Frontline itself: jubilation. It was April ’81 again. Barricades suddenly began to be erected and someone in a mask turned back traffic, firmly redirecting them out of the immediate area. The crowd was young and almost all male. There was an eerie silence. Then a fire broke out. It was the work-huts on the demolition site. A nearby house opposite the Blues clubs was set alight. The crowd grew and suddenly windows were smashed, Molotovs thrown. The crowd – around 150 – turned down Railton Rd towards Herne Hill. They came to the Anarchist Bookshop, smashing windows on the way, and as with the ’81 riots, the shop was passed by, untouched. Suddenly the cops appeared: it was the IRUs dressed in black fire-proof overalls and wearing protective helmets and visors. They carried long thick staves and as they charged down the road they let out war whoops, banging their batons on the shield. Zulu fashion. The crowd held out until the cops got within spitting distance, and then dispersed. They regrouped and threw whatever they could at their attackers. They were dispersed once more. It was stalemate.

MOPPING UP

Then came the mopping-up. Frustrated by their failure to catch any of those directly involved in the riot in Railton Road, the cops turned their attentions on anyone foolish enough to be wandering the streets aimlessly and who could become the object of their revenge. We know of one incident where a group of punks had just left their home in Talma Road and were set upon by these thugs. They were ordered to stop, and, out of fear, one of them ran off but was caught at the next turning. The cops viciously set upon him, dragged him to their van and beat him up. He sustained serious injuries to his arms and legs and was charged with assault. He was 17 years old. No one was safe on the streets and the cops continued to hunt down potential victims.

Back at the town hall, meanwhile, a Council meeting was in session to discuss the eviction of some squatters in North Lambeth, and some people from Brixton Squatters Aid arrived to cause trouble. They managed to disrupt the proceedings for a while and then left to provide whatever back-up they could to comrades being attacked on the streets. Elsewhere incidents were increasing; word had got around and looting took place in several main streets, and a police coach was set on fire. In Notting Hill the locals made trouble in solidarity and in Tottenham an IRU was called in (from Brixton!) to disperse a crowd. Cops were also stoned from the balconies of Stockwell Park Estate.

By 8pm more crowds had gathered in central Brixton, but realising the sheer force of the numbers against them, wisely decided to play it cool, ‘take notes’ and learn about the enemy. Later in the evening another building near Coldharbour Lane was firebombed but by then the confrontation was coming to a close. The Brixton community was left to spend a long sleepless night, with the cops well & truly in control of the streets.

The next day, and for successive days, the cops continued to maintain their grip of fear. Coach loads of police were stationed on street corners day and night, while foot patrols wore ridiculously frequent. At first little use was made of Stop and Search, although a group of people entering the anarchist bookshop were asked if they wore carrying ‘bombs’ and their box of vegetables was examined. This policy of total saturation continued for a further 2 weeks. The squatters remained but the hustlers were nowhere to be seen. They had, in fact, merely moved around the corner to another street where they opened up new clubs.

‘INCITEMENT’

The day after the riot the press was full of the usual accusations. The most ridiculous being that the local ‘anarchist’ group – specifically 3 whites, a woman and two men – had roused the ‘mob’ and incited them to riot. Councillor Robin Pitt claimed to know their names but told the papers that the police were unable to make arrests due to lock of concrete evidence. The farce continued when the next day a woman from the Workers Against Racism South London group (a Revolutionary Communist Party – Trot – Front) admitted she was one of those that the Councillor was accusing and that she had been in the thick of it and proud of it, taking a ‘leading role’. This self-appointed saviour and publicity seeker got her come-uppance when she was told, in no uncertain way, to fuck off by local black activists at a post mortem held that week. (She went on to run as a Parliamentary Candidate in the much publicised Bermondsey Bye-election starring Peter Tatchell and others.) The Press, however still looked for scapegoats and for a while raids were expected: incitement, something usually associated with books on 19th Century history, was the main accusation and the very impreciseness of the law associated with this charge only helped to increase the general feeling of vulnerability.

SURVEILLANCE

About 2 weeks afterwards, and a couple of days prior to the Press Release giving details of the new Police Powers Bill, the local Police Commander for Brixton, Inspector Fairburn, announced that Officers from CII (Intelligence) and the A.T.S. were being seconded, on a permanent basis, to help monitor future developments on the Frontline. Further more, he admitted that the cops on the Frontline had been using and will continue to use sophisticated listening devices to “keep track on the activities of potential ‘muggers’.” Coincidentally, Brixton was also the first area in Britain to incorporate the new System X switching system devised at Martlesham, Ipswich, by British Telecom. Apart from making it more difficult to sabotage the telephone network, system X provided the capacity to monitor all telephone calls automatically as well as automatic re-routing/blocking in State states of emergency, or whenever the authorities desired it.

Brixton (and Toxteth) had now become to the rest of Britain, in terms of policing, what the North of Ireland had been to the UK, in terms of militarisation…

After the November 1982 riot, the police/press/council tried to revive the old charge of incitement against the local anarchist suspects at 121, which, as the anarchist paper Black Flag pointed out “ridiculous and totally groundless. It is also elitist (and in this particular case racist) as it implies that those who participated in the action were incapable of deciding things for themselves: they need others to encourage or ‘lead’ them. Given the somewhat uneasy relationship between black and white residents of the frontline area, the charge was even more laughable.

It’s not at all surprising that hierarchical gangs run on orders from tiny cliques should attempt to present resistance as only being possible if run by secret leaders. The whole idea of people organising and fighting back together on their own behalf and under no-one’s orders clearly threatens the entire basis of social control. The whole idea of it has to be suppressed and rebellion has to be presented as a secret conspiracy of fanatics pulling the strings of mindless dupes. The llluminati anyone?

Raids on the Frontline continued, as houses were evicted and demolished; 28 officers were assigned to full time work there. In early December ’82, dozens of black and white people were dragged out of houses, in Railton Road, and Talma Rd, round the corner, where the evicted blues clubs had set up anew after November. The raids as usual produced a couple of charges for possession of small amounts of dope, theft of electric fuses, etc. In Talma Road, they besieged a squat, padlocking it on the outside. The squatters, trapped inside, fled, leaving the house to be smashed up. The following week 70 people were lifted in street arrests and more raids.

On top of announcing they’d be using long-range mikes to listen to inhabitants of the Frontline, cops had seemingly prevailed on the council to make some alterations to the local geography: walkways in some estates (eg Angell Town) were demolished, after the youth had pelted cops from above in November. Overhead walkways made moving around estates easier, especially for rioters holding off invading police. (As cops in North Peckham would find to their cost in 1985, when concrete rain fell on them). Traffic priorities were changed in Stockwell Park Estate to make police control easier.

Stockwell Park, from the dreams of the Brixton planners, had become a grim dumping ground, rife with crime and depression. Getting burgled during the day while you were in was not a rare occurrence; the walkways and cubbyholes may have been a tactical gift during riots but could make daily life paranoid and threatening. As a result there was some racial trouble on the estate: a sizable white population feeling under attack from ‘the blacks’. This led to splits within the Tenants Association, and a breakaway “White Defence Association” was set up, demanding more high profile policing. Because of their agenda, this development received some substantial publicity in the South London Press and Daily Mail, always keen to play up and make points about ‘racial’ aggravation. As with the “rightwing white residents’ of the frontline (see above) who supported the demolition of the blues and squats, some of the opposition to Brixton’s rebel culture/support for hardline policing came from both genuine daily experience of crime as well as an undeniable old-style prejudice and respect for authority. The fact that many especially older local whites were racist has made it sometimes harder to get a genuine discussion of very real problems they went through; as with the anarchists’ anti-mugging campaigns, many people were unwilling to talk about racial elements in muggings etc.

POSTSCRIPT:

Commander Fairburn was replaced not long after the riot as Police Commander in Lambeth by Alex Marnock who had in the past been a commander in the SPG.

No helicopter was seen during the riot because the one generally used by the Met for Lambeth had to turn back: on its way it suddenly collided with an exploding flare which was let off. The flash probably affected the ultra-sensitive night vision cameras. Just showing what could be done with a simple firework!

This prompted the following poem (which appeared in Hooligan Press’ From Beneath the Keyboard’ collection a couple of years later:

CAN PIGS FLY?

Helicopter, Helicopter where have you been?
We all miss the sound of rotor-blade scream!
And Infra-red cameras, recording the signs,
of extortionate rents, food, dope and fines.

Helicopter, Supersnoop! Is it true what they said?
That youre mothballed away in the maintainence shed,
lenses of scanners all scarred by a Bash
from yacht flare or rocket, nearly causing a CRASH????

Chocolate chopper! is there nothing to do?
-even if we pay for a nimrod or two,
to watch o’er you as you watched o’er us
plus satellites and marksmen atop every ‘bus!

MACHINE SUPREME! Don’t leave us this way
your almighty din gave such fun every day
comforted mothers and children Abed
just can’t hear crimes with you overhead!

Where oh, where can you now be seen?
Dispatched to the Falklands or Camberwell Green.
In Kensington, if it is allowed ……..
directing lost tourists up Pem-br-oke Road!

There’s another job we need air support for,
tracking infringers of safety-belt law,
no point in letting criminals run to ground,
call ’em David Martin, claim your five Rounds.

PLEASE TELL US DEAR READERS, HELP US TO TRACK THE MILLION P0UND PIG WITH EGG ON IT’S FACE!

Rev. ARMITAGE. Can’t Pray-GOTTA RIOT!

The Tory reign in Lambeth lasted barely a few months. Labour, then in the hands of Red Ted Knight and his Trotskyist entrists, were back in power by late November ’82, due to the defection of SDP councillor Gordon Ley, a prime victim of squatters’ hate campaigns (he had had his lorry attacked, his shop smashed up, his car nicked and burned out), although he claimed it wasn’t fear of continuing moonlight visits that made him swap sides. Pull the other one Gordy.

The new Labour Regime DID give licences to some squatted houses in June 1983, as long as they joined co-ops: most of these were in Clapham, although some houses in Millbrook Road and Loughborough Park were recognised. None were in the Frontline. And a year and a half after the November clearances, a remaining frontline outpost of squatting, Effra Parade, was also to face eviction…

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Account of the November 1982 riot from Black Flag, 2 Feb 1983)
With notes from Crowbar no 6, 8 October 1983, and no 7, 22 October.

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An entry in the
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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

Today in London riotous history: police shooting of Cherry Groce sparks a riot, Brixton, 1985.

28/9/85: Five years after the 1981 Brixton Uprising a large-scale riot broke out in Brixton, after cops shot & crippled Cherry Groce, mother of 6, in a dawn raid while searching for her son.

Here’s an account from a local Brixton anarchist who participated in the riot… 

A team of armed officers had gone to Cherry Groce’s home, in Normandy Road, to find her son, Michael, who had done a runner on a charge of armed robbery. In fact he hadn’t lived there for a year… The cops smashed their way in, with a sledgehammer, and then Inspector Lovelock rushed in… allegedly shouting “armed police”. Mrs Groce said he ran at her pointing a gun, she moved backwards and he shot her. She was paralysed and confined to a wheelchair by her injuries.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN BRIXTON, and we hear of the brutal police shooting in the back of a woman in Normandy Road. This time the racist pigs have gone too far! We take a carload and drive down there, in the hope of having a go at the bastards. As we arrive we see a small crowd heading off towards the police station and we follow. We hear that some journalist reptiles have already been beaten up… Good one! At the pig sty there is a rush round the side and furious arguments begin with the cops blocking the gate. The Crescent was filling up as a dozen more cops filed in to protect the gate. A top cop started to make a speech… then the first bottle sailed over and smashed over his head, showering the gang of state thugs (police) with glass. A wild cheer broke out as the cops ran inside. Cops on the roof dived for cover as a hail of stones and bottles began. We all rushed to the front, fearing a trap. More stones were thrown and police windows shattered. A group of black women urged us on, running right up to the front door, flinging stones and bottles.

Saturday morning, crawled out of bed at-midday, and went out to do my shopping. The town centre was very tense. If you stopped still anywhere for a minute, all you could hear was people talking about Cherry Groce. People were saying that she had been shot twice in the back, while running away. I went into a department store and bought myself a scarf, just to be on the safe side. There was almost no cops about. I saw four, walking together in the market, but they quickly went back to the station. Everyone was staring at them, and a few people were shouting “Murderers” at them. A car backfired nearby, and they nearly jumped out of their skins!

The cowardly police were nowhere to be seen. We could hardly believe our eyes. lt was just after 6.00pm, the rapidly growing crowd was spilling back among the packed traffic and pedestrians. We had just started the Brixton Anti Police Riot, 1985! We saw 2 riot vans in Gresham Road, found stones and flung them. One van unloaded and the filth had to run like rabbits around to the side door, the other fled in a shower of bricks from the black youth. There was a big huddle on the corner, as the black women urged the men on, then a big group rushed right across Brixton Road, through the traffic, and stormed the petrol station in Stockwell Avenue. BURN THE BASTARDS OUT!… while a second posse kept stoning the Station, we could see the police cowering from the windows. In the same moments a gang of youths charged into a supermarket right opposite and emerged with the till, spilling money about… The looting had begun! In the next five hours the people of Brixton ripped off almost a million pounds worth of consumer goods! A minute later the first flames, a car had been set alight in Brixton Road, the first attempt to stop police reinforcements getting through. At that point I left, rushing home to get hats and masks for our group. The word was spreading through Brixton like wildfire… RIOT NOW… THE COPS ARE ON THE RUN!

I went back home and turned on the Po-Lice radio. Every channel was alive with orders for Units and, Serials (Riot Vans) to assemble at ‘Lambeth Traffic’. Dogs, Horses, were being ordered, and all the vans were being kitted out with shields, helmets, mesh on the windows, etc. On hearing of this, I rushed down to the Po-Lice station. There was a fair sized crowd outside, about five to six hundred, and getting bigger. There were a lot of people masked up, and black women were shouting abuse at the station. I met a friend, and we started to pull up paving stones, throwing them down again to get small, manageable lumps. I filled my pockets, masked up, and had a brick in each hand. Swallowing my fear, I joined a posse, and about ten of us ran over the road and started to brick the station. I stopped to see my rocks strike home and then from out of nowhere came a volley of mollies. They hit the station in a burst of yellow flame, and I saw a couple go through the broken windows and set alight the offices. The crowd burst out with cheering, and almost everyone started to mask up.

Cops in the station shout out “Fuck off home, niggers!

When I got back I saw people laughing with joy. The cops had tried to stop it, bringing out a line of riot police, a sellout ‘Community Leader’ and a priest in front of the Station. A top cop introduced the priest… “Listen to him, he is your leader” he said, passing the megaphone. At that moment some genius threw the first petrol bomb, almost setting them on fire. As the police and sellout shits ran for cover Brixton Police Station was petrol bombed, one even got inside but was extinguished. The police were unable to enter the area, as all hell broke loose, in the High Street, down Brixton Road, up Gresham Road, to Coldharbour, up Tulse Hill and Acre Lane, through the Market and up Railton Road.

AS we donned our scarves I saw a huge fire blazing down Brixton Road near Normandy, literally dozens of cars were burning, beyond lines of Riot pigs defending their Station. We met up with more anarchists, the High Street was still a Police free zone, traffic was still coming in as, laughing and yelling, the late shoppers began a looting spree. Burtons, Marks and Sparks, Dunn’s, then there was a great rush for the jewellers and the arcades. It was wonderful to see it, we lent a hand in smashing Barclays Bank, symbol of racism and black oppression, before the police charges and serious fighting began.

At this stage, cops in full riot gear started to pour out of the station, like ants when you kick their nest. They lined up with shields and we started bricking. Vans poured in. There was still four lanes of traffic going by, all the drivers crouched at the wheels, as a rainbow of bricks and bottles showered over the top of them … very surreal.

The tactics of the rioters were brilliant and inventive: older black men in track suits advising the younger posses, often chasing back reinforcements and lines of riot cops, rescuing people trapped by murdering racists, leaving lightly defended barricades to string them out thin. Blacks and whites fought side by side from the beginning, but there was plenty of suspicion – looking out for the plainclothes police, some white bystanders and even some activists were mugged (though the majority were against this action of a few kids). Less than one fifth of the actual fighters were white. The few bigger white gangs were accepted in when it was clear we were intent on attacking the police murderers. Reporters, photographers and TV crews were just treated as police… hundreds have done prison because of their activities in previous riots!

VOLLEYS OF MOLLIES

No sirens, no flashing lights. Plumes of smoke hang over the Angel Park area of Brixton. On the corner of Stockwell Road riot police huddle two deep behind their plastic defences. Spontaneous Combustion? No! This is Brixton through a Riot shield. Here on this corner of Brixton and Stockwell Roads volleys of mollies rain down on this PATHETIC rabble of government Wallies from behind a bush in Angel Park. Black youth is raging! More mollies in combined assault!…

At the Old White Horse Pub a car borrowed by an anonymous rioter is driven at breakneck speed down Loughborough Road… No stopping for lights in this urban war… It finds its target: plunged deep inside a corner shop, and is matched. Fifty yards from besieged Brixton Police Station a road block of Fords, Renaults and Mercedes starts to explode, The riot Police RETREAT under volleys of bricks, abuse and molotov cocktails. While in the centre pigs huddle helplessly under the ‘WE’RE BACKING BRIXTON’- sign.

Two steps forward, Three steps back. At this time – WE ARE WINNING!!

We cut round into Stockwell Road, which was a No Go Area, and helped some young blacks turning over cars and setting them alite. A few cars were still driving innocently in from Landor Road. Those who refused to stop or turn were bricked to bits. I saw white people abandoning their cars, some with their hands in the air. Then a line of riot vans appeared, one got through, swerving through the burning cars amid a hail of bricks. The others held back, as we worked up courage to charge, though we were few our fury was great. “South Africa, South Africa” a kid screamed, as we charged screaming against the pride of the British State, chasing the bastards right back towards Stockwell Tube Station

STOCKWELL RIOT

After about half an hour, we were charged, and we fell back to the rollerskate park on Stockwell Road. We overturned a couple of cars to block the riot vans, and we torched them. Traffic was still trying to get through…

We were very careful about which cars we should use, so we only picked a couple of wrecks. At one stage, black and white united, we had a half hour discussion on the ethics of car burning. We kept picking ones to block the last of the lanes, but neighbours would come out and argue with us, and we’d start again. The argument was ended when I stepped out into a lane of traffic, stuck out my hand, and stopped a Green Line coach. I went round the side, opened the emergency door, got in, grabbed the driver by the shoulders, and assisted him out. We parked it across two lanes, amidst much laughter. Was this for real? Here I was commandeering a fucking coach! Later it got burnt out, but at that point we were charged, and we went further up Stockwell Road, to do some selective looting… black shops were left alone, although later on in the day, the distinction was forgotten. I chased around the back streets for a while, lobbing a few bricks here and there. At one point about seven cops were lined up behind their shields, blocking off one road. Along with a group of black guys, we got a rhythm going, “All go, All come back.” We’d grab a couple of bricks, run, throw, retreat. This soon got pretty tiring, and as the pigs weren’t chasing, we went within ten yards of them and just kept throwing, reloading from a skip. After five minutes of constant barrage at close range, the cops got well pissed off and charged us. I turned and fled… everything went into slow motion, and behind me I saw a flash of blue, hurtling after me with a truncheon. I managed to reach the safety of a crowd, but that was the closest I came to being nicked all day.

LATER… We have visited several friends’ houses to rest, smoke and drink looted beer. We have heard the stories of sadistic violence, savage beatings, and arrests in hand to hand fighting with the pigs.  One man has a broken jaw and six broken teeth, another has his head sliced open. What we really need is guns! Detouring towards the Railton area we come to Acre Lane, and walk into a running riot as a huge crowd retreats from Central Brixton. Acre Lane is smashed up, including a DHSS office and a Lambeth Council building (Who Cares?), a Church reading room, a bank, the petrol station, off licence, etc, etc. Half way to Clapham police attack from both sides as we try to barricade, everyone escapes. into side streets, but we are cut off from the main crowd which goes towards Brixton Hill. We stop at another party (there are parties starting everywhere) for further refreshments and tales of glory.

The unofficial cops – reporters – were also savagely dealt with, with one of these defenders of the status quo – a freelance journalist – being beaten up and eventually dying because he’d stupidly taken photos of youths looting a jewellery store. Unfortunately, proletarians with no stake in the shit-heap were also sometimes attacked. Insurgents, rightly searching individuals for so me form of ID (to see if they’re from the media or plain clothes cops), sometimes turned to indiscriminate mugging (although, in at least one instance, a guy who’d been mugged argued with the people who mugged him and. after 5 minutes, they returned the money, saying “You’re o.k. “). (BM Combustion)

Interestingly black journo Sebastian Godwin aka Cuba Assegai, got abused by both cops and rioters as tried to tape record participants secretly by hiding his tape recorder under his long flowing robe. Rioters told him to hop it or face some nasty consequences. He hopped it. He then tried to speak to some cops… and got nicked.

HIGH STREET RIOT

I decided to cool down a bit and went and had a pint. Then I went down to the High Street. Burtons was being looted, and Dunns was well on fire. I lent a hand at trying to loot Sanders Jewellers, but just as we got the shutters open the cops chased us back to Ferndale Road, where we started on Samuels Jewellers. We got two shutters open, and cleaned them out, after which we started round the front. We tried our best, but the cops kept charging us, and we kept bricking them away. Eventually, I decided to piss off home, and return through a twisting route of quiet back streets. Whole families are sitting on the steps, drinking looted wine and smoking 16 skinners. There’s a real nice atmosphere, like a street party. Old black guys are sitting on the pavement next to a Ford transit calmly siphoning out the petrol into a row of bottles and chatting away pleasantly.

I make my way up to the Frontline, past the tory club. Its windows have been bricked, and the cars in the forecourt have been burnt out. Tulse Hill Post Office is on fire.

Back on the frontline all seems calm as I arrive. Suddenly three riot cops come round the corner of Effra Parade. I lob a couple of bricks at them, and to my horror fifty riot cops wheel round after them. I leg it into the rezzies, [St George’s Residences – ed.] just getting away as they charge. A running battle ensues, with mollies being thrown. The cops finally retreat. I listen to the Po-Lice radio and hear that a crowd is congregating outside the town hall. I rush down. About four hundred people are there, most of them on the Oval in front of the Ritzy. We start pulling up lumps of cut stone from the cobbles. They are so heavy you have to carry them in both hands. About ten vans are running in circles round and round the Oval, like injuns. Every ten secs we heave our massive lumps of rock at them. The vans are looking in a real sorry state, covered in dents, with lights and mudguards hanging off. Windscreens are all spidered across. After half an hour of this, they line up by Barclays (all the windows done), and charge us, chasing us all the way up to the George Canning. I make good my escape (as they say) and wander back to the frontline. Buddies is still open for business, of course, so I grab myself a Red Stripe. Listening to the radio, I can hear units complaining:” Ere, control, we’ve been on duty for 14 hours and we still haven’t had any refreshments!”

I go out into the streets and luxuriously sip my cold beer in, front of two riot vans. The pigs are staring at me with hate and envy… what a laugh! Still I must be home now, got to be ready for tomorrow!!!

There is widespread looting… with everything from cakes & nappies to double beds and jewelery being nicked. Although there is some occasional fighting over the spoils, with some blacks getting territorial and exclusive and possessive about the shops being looted – even to the point of telling whites to keep out of ‘their’ battle, there is also the usual joyful potlatch of laughter, fire-raising and pillage, an intense desire for life expressed with a spontaneous generosity. 7-year olds were seen helping their grandmothers carry away boxes of alcohol. One old woman, terrified by the atmosphere of the riot, was calmed down when some black guy gave her a couple of bottles of stolen brandy. Someone nicked a whole load of electric kettles, piled them up into a vaguely pyramid shape and set fire to them: the kind of thing which modern forms of art turn into museum-pieces become subversive when practiced without authorisation. (BM Combustion)

MUCH LATER… We reach Tulse Hill and meet up with local squatters… The Post Office has been burned down! The Tory club has been attacked with 40 tories inside, 3 of their cars have been burned as barricades and the building nearly set alight, and smashed up! The hated Housing office has been attacked and looted!

TULSE HILL RIOT

As the Brixton Riot spread out in all directions, one zone was up Effra Road to Tulse Hill where we live. About 8.30pm the barricades were going up by St Matthews Church, but as soon as they were half completed the police would charge. This happened 3 times. We were being forced back into the estates. After the 3rd charge our line was up Effra Road near Brixton Water Lane and right outside the (HO HO HO) Effra Conservative Club (which we’ve attacked many times before). As an extra bonus the Tory’s next door neighbour happened to be the heavily grilled Lambeth Housing Office. The God of Violence smiled on us that night, Long live evil! Two Tory cars were then dragged out of the car park and set alight in the middle of the road. A third was set alight in their car park (setting a tree in flames and starting rumours that the whole place had gone up with 40 Tories inside!) All the other cars were systematically trashed and the windows bricked as the terrified tories cowered behind the curtains The 150-200 spectators didn’t seem to mind. Even when the empty beer barrels went through the Housing Office windows. 50 yds up the road people had broken into the garage and relieved it of crowbars and heavy metal bars. Somebody declared they had run out of fags, someone else said they had tobacco but no papers… The newsagent was then broken into, so everybody had a months supply of fags and papers and sweets etc etc, courtesy of the insurance company!

After that the Post Office was looted of all its small change (£20 bags in 2p and lp pieces). It was then burnt to the ground. By then the police had moved the barricade so everyone fucked off to the next spot. That was the Tulse Hill Riot and it was great!

But the pigs have arrived in force and seized control of the area. On to Effra Parade and Railton Road, where the rioters fought bravely against overwhelming odds. Through Muggers Alley to the Barrier. Block, but the filth have taken over Coldharbour Lane. It’s after midnight but still small groups are lighting cars, stoning the Police and retreating into the maze of flats. Only in Brixton Road/Normandy is the riot still in full swing, but it’s impossible to get down there. We climb the Barrier block and amuse ourselves flinging stones at passing police vans. Below us at Barkers Corner is total destruction, where a looted furniture shop was torched to try and stop the pigs getting through, and the whole corner has burned to the ground. One floor above it was squatted and our friends have lost everything (which was fuck all anyway). Another flat was occupied legally by the loathsome Smeggy Kurt (of shockabilly band King Kurt, who did a benefit for the scab miners). Coldharbour Lane has gone quiet, though there was fierce fighting there again on Sunday. Off we go to the next squat for more refreshments!

STILL LATER: We pass through Central Brixton on route to another party. The place is like a smouldering war zone, with 1000’s of filth standing around. We’re all still high with our marvellous victory. But we hear tales of random police revenge prolonged screaming from pig vans rocking with the blows dogs set on people in the vans, bystanders beaten to shit and left for dead. It’s too dangerous to be out – the racist murderers are back in control. Very few if any of the rioters were arrested, but over the 2 days the pigs took nearly 250 people hostages and charged them with whatever came to mind

The only solution is to get rid of the police altogether and protect our own communities. But to do that we will need a revolution

Nevertheless, some incidents were rubbish. One or two old people were stoned after cussing the fact their flats had been inevitably torched because they were above a burning store. And in one miserable incident, a couple of Hooray Henries tried to show off their prowess by winding up some of the rioters who’d interfered with their load of high-class polished tin – a posh car. They were chased off, but a couple of rioters set about raping the girl-friend of one of them (a daughter of a Tory M.P.) and another woman, who, depending on which story you believe, either had nothing to do with the rich kids or was the girlfriend of one of the Hooray Henries. Either way such rapes, attacks on easy targets, are crap – a degraded expression of ‘sexuality’ Obviously the media, trying to ferment an even more oppressive law & order backlash than present, had a field-day with these incidents. And it’s not much use saying that rapes & mugging occur as much outside riots as during them: though true, this doesn’t get to grips with confronting the problem – how to start making the streets safe for all but the defenders of this society. Obviously, anyone who thinks the State can solve rapes is just plain stupid – and resigned to not trying to change things so as to stop such humiliating reduction of people to objects in all its’ forms – not just rape.

Nevertheless, in criticising these rapes and muggings, we should also remember something of the various changes since the riots of ’81. London, unlike the northern or midland cities, has, since ’81, become incomparably more gentrified than ever before – particularly in Brixton, where the older generation of blacks have sold up and moved back to the West Indies, leaving the ‘radical’ yuppies, anxious for a bit of street cred, to take over the houses: the rich young (and not so young) things have moved in & sent property prices soaring. What’s more, as the proletariat has become more au fait with chic, a greater levelling in terms of fashion has meant that it is becoming difficult visually to tell the difference between the rich young things and those who are more thoroughly alienated than before. Behind the tendency towards style levelling, though, there’s a major counter-tendency: the chasm of social apartheid is getting wider & wider, and, in the riots, there’s been a direct response to gentrification with physical attacks on owner occupied housing, especially those with ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ stickers in the window.

These increasing displays of wealth in ones’ immediate neighbourhood go some way towards explaining some of the craziness of the riots in London. The anonymity of London, despite the fact that, along with the greater amount of money here, it enables those on the dole to survive in the black economy or doing various fiddles more easily than those on the dole elsewhere and despite the fact that those in official work generally get better wages here – though, unless you’re squatting, 40% of that can go on rent) – despite all this, the blatant contradictions and the isolation and separations make for a more explosive, desperately ferocious, situation. Beneath the bleakness up North, there’s a constant spontaneous class solidarity, which despite a lot of bullshit about ‘community’, really does develop into a community of struggle sometimes. Sure, it happens in London in short spurts, but with the anonymity and blase cynicism, indifference and mistrust towards each other is far harder to break. (BM Combustion)

MURDERERS

The community was out on the streets on Saturday night because the Inspector ‘Windy Shitpants’ Lovelock shot a black mother of six and put her in a wheelchair for life. If it hadn’t been her it could have been her 22 year-old son – only he’d be dead. The result of this was a spontaneous explosion of class rage – of community hatred against the cowardly, incompetent, callous action of Inspector ‘Cowardly Shitlegs’ Lovelock – a so-called fucking ‘Firearm Expert’ – and his vicious racist friends – the Community Police. All this is conveniently forgotten by his idiot boss the Chief Constable of Lambeth Commander Alec Marnoch who drivels on with mindfucking stupidity about “visiting agitators from Handsworth” – what a load of fucking bullshit! No, as EVERYONE knows the riots were started, organised and led by Communist Alien Stormtroops from the red planet Bolleaux, who landed on the roof of the fucking Ritzy!!!

When are the stupid pig shits going to wise up to the fact that we riot in response to the particularly vile acts of oppression by the class enemy: the cops. We fight these bastards with all our force and all our strength with bricks and petrol bombs, we confront them and maim them and kill them BECAUSE WE HATE THEM. The Police are Class Traitors. They have always been, are now and will always be our Sworn Enemy.

29/9/85. More rioting in Brixton but nothing on the scale of the night before due to the whole area being saturated by riot cops.

CHIMPANZEES CHATTERING COMMITTEE

On Tues 2nd Oct the Police Consultative Committee had its regular meeting at Lambeth Town Hall. Its an open meeting in which the Fuzz can say openly to the public whatever lies they can think up and confidently forget it the next day. The Committee has been a sellout rubber stamp for the pigs for ages and everyone knows it.

It proved to be the last meeting of the Police Consultative Committee.

They started it in a small hall… so that many people were locked out. Almost as the meeting started 2 blokes and a woman stood up calmly, took the mikes from the table and threw them on the floor. Water was thrown at the Chairman and everyone was cheerfully screaming “Put him behind bars”. The unanimous feeling was that the Copper who shot the lady (Mrs Groce) should be charged with attempted murder, some suggested those with him on the stupid raid should be done for aiding and abetting.

All the head cop (Ch. lnsp. ‘Shit for Brains’ Marnoch) could say was that there will be an inquiry and he couldn’t say more till the inquiry is complete.

There was a crashing and banging, louder and louder. Then the door broke open and those locked out came in. We decided to move to a bigger hall. By then we were 250 to 300 people. The chairman was given a vote of no confidence, and we the people took over. When Marpox (the head pig) came to speak people suggested he stood up. He said he didn’t mind, jokingly adding that he’d make a better target. With that someone threw something at him, (unfortunately missing) and everyone cracked up laughing.

One of the many highlights came when one of Shit For Brains’ assistant pigs practically stripped off, and declared himself again a member of the public and pleaded for one more chance … The laughter could be heard in Clapham!

One woman made a motion to kick the 3 idiots out of the hall so we could have a real meeting, adding that to have a meeting with the Police present was dangerous. Sadly there wasn’t enough support for this. Half an hour later, after 3 hours of letting the Filth know

what we thought of their ‘Community Policing’ the same lady got up and said “There’s nothing more to say, lets all leave together”, which we all did. Leaving the Police Consultative Group sitting there lucky to be alive. .

The Revolution makes its own leaders.

A few days later it was announced that the Police Consultative Committee had decided to disband! (Actually it didn’t; Lambeth Council withdrew from the Committee, but it went back in 1994.)

The 1985 Brixton riot also brought another little reform in the cops’ image: a cop spokesman went on TV and virtually conceded that the anger and violence directed at the cops outside the police station (where molotovs were thrown) were, considering the sad situation, virtually “excusable” – but that the looting and arson afterwards was gratuitous and opportunistic. Sadly, Cherry Groce’s family also gave interviews to the media condemning the burning and looting, collaborating with the forces that make such “unlawful wounding” inevitable. Of course, the burning and looting was one of the reasons behind the State’s decision to prosecute Inspector Lovelock for crippling Cherry Groce. Another reason, though, is to give the State the appearance of being able to correct its’ excesses, to punish those who abuse their power, thus narrowing people’s focus on the misery of their lives down to just specific individuals and isolated incidents. (BM Combustion)

Accounts from Brixton squatters paper Crowbar, no 45. Plus interspersed comments from BM Combustion’s ‘Rebel Violence vs. Hierarchical Violence’ A Chronology of Anti-State Violence July 1985 – May 1986.

Postscript:

In January 1987 Inspector Lovelock was acquitted on the charge of ‘maliciously wounding’ Mrs Groce. “The police and the media made sure he got off….by vetting the jury, by calling queues of star witnesses to say how UPSET the POOR man was, how fearful, nervous and unlucky etc…”About 100 people picketed the Murder HQ in response, followed by a march through Brixton.

PPS: (2014)

Cherry Groce suffered paralysis as a result of the shooting, remaining in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The cops paid her £500,000 in compensation “with no admission of liability.” She died in 2011, from kidney failure, linked directly to effects of the shooting. Her inquest found that the police had bollocksed up the whole operation; failing to check who lived in the house, and failing to communicate the fact that Michael Groce was not even wanted any more (?!), among numerous mistakes; that the police were responsible for her death. The Met publicly apologised to her family for her death in April 2014.

A few years too late.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

Today in London anarchist history, 1999: the 121 Centre evicted, Brixton

It was twenty years ago today…

… the legendary 121 Centre was evicted in Brixton…

Squat centre, bookshop, black radical space, anarchist space… Over 26 years of its life, the three-storey Edwardian building on the corner of Railton Road and Chaucer Road went through many incarnations…

After so many years the rollercoaster came to an end on 12th August 1999, when 121 was evicted by Lambeth Council, with the aid of 150 cops, some armed, after a six-month stand-off and 24-hour occupation.

One day we will write the full story of 121… there’s just so much else to do… For now, here’s a short and very incomplete history, written off the cuff last night, with some cut and paste from other things we have published… which we fully admit it inadequate and definitely biased. We worked there, see, played there, learned and got off our heads, discussed heavy shit, mates died there, other mates who shared all that with us are also gone now too. With all its many faults and downsides (how long have you got?), it is a part of us and we’re a part of it.

The first squatters to take over part of 121 Railton Road were Olive Morris and Liz Obi.

Olive Morris, who had been a member of the UK Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. From it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”

In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of a black man the police were harassing, was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…

“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton.

Liz Obi relates: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.

We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out.”

Olive breaking into the back of 121 makes the cover of the Squatters handbook…

The Women’s Centre at 207 Railton Road was a focus for a whole array of radical causes at this time. They helped well over 300 people to squat in the mid-70s.

“At that time a squatters’ movement was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris, was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.
This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.” (Gail Lewis, in interview, included in Talking Personal, Talking Political, originally published in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife, no 19, 1990. With a text on the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, it’s now available as a Past Tense pamphlet, Black Women Organising).

Olive Morris died in 1979, aged only 26, from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Check out a website dedicated to her memory

Railton Road then was a hub of life, known as ‘the frontline’ – home to the street culture that had migrated with the West Indian communities that had gradually come to represent the area’s majority population, and a squatting culture – or rather two. White and black squatting were not separate but had distinct qualities, mingling but quite different at their outer fringes, and sometimes hostile or frosty. The area was often filled with (mostly) young lack folk, out in all weathers… But many of the buildings, left empty after a Lambeth program of compulsory purchasing for a redevelopment that had never happened, were squatted, providing homes for thousands of people, black and white, local and from far afield, usually poor and/or working class, but not always. Other buildings became ‘blues’ clubs, shebeens in effect, self-organised clubs based around heavy reggae, toasting, cannabis… Others again became activist spaces, hosting feminism, lesbian and gay groups and communities, anarchists, leftist or every hue… From the late 60s to this century, this mixed ocean of cultures defined Brixton – along with police and authority’s response to it.

Because the cops hated the frontline, hated the West Indians – especially the young ones who didn’t look down and tug their forelock – and to a lesser extent, they also hated the radicals and white squatters, subversives all, uppity women, queers… Police activity on Railton Road and in wider Brixton tended to take the form of an occupying army, and not without reason: that’s how the cop brass saw it, how the plod on the ground also saw it, and how the locals saw it. Raids, repression and racism were endemic in the police, many of who were members of the rightwing National Front, especially the paramilitary Special patrol Group. Their invasion tactics and willingness to steam in would spark the Brixton riots in April 1981 and then a couple of re-runs that July, again in 1985… 1995… It helped the evolution of the British Black Panther Party and other black power groups, and a general sense of us and dem – cops against community. This has never entirely gone away, as the same dynamics keep cropping up. In the week we write this new Stop and Search powers are being drawn up – carbon copies of the ‘SUS’ laws that led to the 1981 uprising. There have periods of more softly softly approaches, but there’s a basic hostility and racism, that keeps bursting the PR bubbles.

Liz and Olive squatted 121 in 1973. Initially the leadership of the Black Panther Party in London was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…” (However, this ended badly with the building burned out in what was most likely a fascist arson attack)

After the Panthers fragmented and evolved into other projects, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, and then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group (based at 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to 121 in the late 1970s, and then a mile or so away to Stockwell Green).

Sabaar Books, a black bookshop run by a black radical collective, occupied the building for several years, then, in late 1980, moved to new premises down on nearby Coldharbour Lane, more central to Brixton (a move controversial to some other black radicals in itself, who denounced them for taking state funding and letting themselves be bought off.

So the building was empty again, but not for long.

Local anarchists had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address to get their mail. When Sabaar moved out, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre.

Many of the crew that squatted the building had been involved in local squatting and political activity before the birth of 121, notably the occupation of Kilner house, in Pegasus Place (off Kennington Oval), in October 1980, where 50 squatters occupied empty flats in a mass action. As the Greater London Council planned to do up the flats & sell them off, the squatters had a lot of local support on the estate – soon there were 200 people living there. The squatters were kicked out in a mass eviction, on 9th January 1981.

During the April 1981 riot, the Anarchist Bookshop escaped trashing by rioters – as happened to most of the other businesses in the area – only to have its window staved in by the cops when they re-took the frontline. (The fact that there was a poster in 121’s window celebrating the riot in St Pauls, Bristol, the year before, is credited with its remaining intact).

Daft as ever, press, cops and council combined to accuse anarchist of fomenting the riots and being secretly behind the trouble. Given the tensions between blacks and whites, the actual size of Brixton’s anarchist community, and most anarchists’ basic attitude to secretly controlling social movements – this was laughable. But in the hysterical atmosphere after April ’81, white authority couldn’t believe black people could get together and organise an uprising. Hilarious and racist. Anarchists had been involved in the riots, like many other white radicals, but as participants side by side with their black neighbours.

As well as local tensions, other eyes were on Brixton. In June, the anarchists at 121 received a hilarious visit. 3 black-raincoated gentlemen claiming to be from the Municipality of Rotterdam came in for a “tete-a-tete”, sincerely desiring first hand information with the aim of preventing similar uprisings in Rotterdam!! It was explained to them that anarchists don’t collaborate with governments, local caring ones or otherwise. They bought 1 Libertarian Workers Group Bulletin and one said he’d come back later as a ‘human being’ as he’s ‘very interested.’”” (From the 121 Daybook, June 9th,1981).

Anarchists around 121, together with local gays, lesbians, feminists and mostly white squatters, formed People Against Police Oppression in the wake of the April 81 riot, as white defendants from the riots had been excluded from support by the larger Brixton Defence Campaign. PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the additional plethora of left-party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. They sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people. But divisions around class and colour caused huge dissension in the wake of the uprising, which are detailed to some extent in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, and anarchist account of April 81.

Successive waves of police and council evictions and clearance programs would begin the development of central Brixton, to dismantle the culture that created the riots and the physical spaces that helped rioters defend and move around their manor. 121 survived this, while many other squats did get cleared and bulldozed, including many blues clubs. Locals squats where anarchist lived including the 121 collective, were targeted – for instance the squatted terrace of Effra Parade, just around the corner. There was a clever policy of divide and rule; street by street, the frontline was gradually reduced, buildings demolished or re-taken. Although often evicted squats would be left empty by the council, from a mix of lack of money, incompetence and uninhabitability, and then re-squatted, the program was in the long term successful – for a number of reasons which it would take too long to detail here (another time, because they are very instructive).

Over the next 18 years the erosion of the autonomous cultures that 121 had formed a part of, left the centre more and more out on its own, halfway out along the road to Herne Hill, with the movements that create it changing, settling down, into housing co-ops, ageing, moving out…

But the place was pretty much always a hive of subversive activity. To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take up a book. Just some of the most significant being

  • Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper – for several years in the mid 1980s the paper was bi-weekly, printed elsewhere but folded upstairs at 121. Years later you could find piles of one page from issues from a decade earlier;
  • the Anarchist Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for much of its existence), a support group for anarchist/other class struggle prisoners;
  • the Kate Sharpley Library, an archive of international anarchist material (which was moved out in 1984, as the building was threatened with eviction and by fascist attack: KSL moved over the road to St George Mansions and later out of London, then to the US),
  • South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (which later evolved into the Solidarity Federation);
  • the London end of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp;
  • South Wales Miners Support Group, during the 1984-’85 Miners’ Strike;
  • Brixton Squatters Aid – which gave practical advice to would-be squatters, kept a regularly updated list of empty properties (we also kept a list of council-owned property in the borough, nicked during an occupation of a housing office… and BSA’s newspaper Crowbar, initially a freesheet duplicated onwaste paper, which became a rowdy class war type magazine that loved to wind up the police, council, lefties and pretty much everyone except the collective (having inherited this from another 121-linked project, the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…
  • anarcha-Feminist paper Feminaxe

Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax, an anarchist based anti-poll tax group; ‘young women’s magazine’, the uproarious Shocking Pink (in its third collective by then), and radical women’s mag Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; Lesbian and Gay free sheet Pink Brick, the list goes on.

And hundreds more groups met there, debated, sold their propaganda in the bookshop, held benefits there, cooked communally… Thousands of people turned up there from all around the world looking for somewhere to live – South Americans on the run from rightwing death squads, Spaniards and Italians avoiding military service, eastern Europeans with firsthand experience of ‘state socialism’… Africans, Caribbeans, too… Though without any intention it was always mainly a place for whitey, odd and often fractious relationships arising (dudes and fucked up people often targeted the place hoping for an easy robbing of someone who they knew wouldn’t go to the cops).

And fascists also tried to burn the 121 down, at least twice…

As well as this the cheap evening meals, late night club in the basement, later the seminal Dead By Dawn rave nights and endless punk gigs… The first Queeruption was held here…

The anarchist bookshop on the ground floor was famously unpredictable in its opening hours, often falling prey to such varied excuses for its closed doors as sudden arrests for shoplifting, workers being off rioting here or abroad, and in especially hard winters, the place being too cold to sit in (of course there were also the odd folk supposed to be doing the shift who just went to sleep on the bench by the front window without opening the shutters!). The doorway became a graffiti board of complaint (I came from Sweden and you were closedetc), calls to revolt and general abuse.

Collective Meetings were sometimes held in the Hamilton Arms up Railton Road, in winter, when the gas ran out and the money was low.

In the mid-1980s the 121 was at its most active, part of a growing network of anarchists in London involved in squatting, the anti-capitalist Stop the City actions, solidarity with the striking miners, and numerous other movements and campaigns… This activity had not gone unnoticed by the boys in blue (another target of the 121ers, strongly involved in resistance to the violent policing of brixton, especially the frontline on Railton Road, which generally carried out in a viciously racist style, with a side-helping of anti-squatter violence… Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) – our postman told us the Branch were holding our mail, opening it at the depot, then forwarding it on to us. Hope you got Dullness Money Sgt…

In August 1984 this police attention climaxed in a raid on 121 and four local squats where some of the collective lived: “TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high‑up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti‑rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having two small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent three hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. “Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?” asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement and up to the roof

Even Ted Knight, Lambeth Council Leader and an old enemy of 121, had to admit “There has never been any suggestion that those people who run the bookshop have been involved in terrorism in any way … It is outrageous that their personal lives should have been interfered with in this way.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog… Shit, no guns down here either…

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences, over the road from 121…

The 121 myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the squatters, as the basement was rapidly explored and put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dark, dingy and dangerously low ceilinged as it was, and only accessible via a steep and lethal wooden stair… nevertheless thousands partied there, from the Club, to Dead By Dawn speedcore nights, through punk gigs, to Queeruption and much more ( the memory of the Anarcho-dales male strip crew will never leave those who were there..!)

The raid had little impact otherwise. 121 would continue for another 15 years, to be evicted almost exactly 15 years later in August 1999…

We know the police took an overt interest in 121. What we don’t yet know is – were any of the undercover police of the Special Demonstration Squad more heavily involved in spying on us? Several certainly visited the place now and then – John Dines, Jim Boyling, Andy Coles all dropped in, as did some names people are suspicious of but have not yet been confirmed as definite police spies. We’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…

There had been some desultory attempts to evict 121 in the early 1980s. The left-Labour clique controlling Lambeth Council may have hated the tory Thatcher government and entered into a battle over ratecapping – but they also hated anarchists, who kept on not doing what they were told by the central committee. Squatting had been tacitly tolerated at times in the 1970s, when the squatters were sometimes linked to young new Left Labour types, and some careful PR had helped squatters get licences, form housing co-ops… By the early 1980s this attitude had hardened, money was tight and council waiting lists were long, and the Brixton counter-culture had little interest in making deals in most cases. The riots added an impetus – squatting, both black and white, had provided the ‘footsoldiers’ of the uprising, and was clearly an obstacle to any kind of regeneration – at least as the council saw it. Even Ted Knight’s Socialist Organiser diktatoriat was basically interested in doing up the area and attracting money to the place (money they, their mates and those with an ear managed to often snaffle or divert – corruption was rife).

121 was an obvious target for eviction – they were literally advertising that the squatters network was run from there, they were sticking two fingers up to the Council (often in the pages of Crowbar) and laughing at the Leninier than thou pretensions of the leading councillors. But two court appearances foundered, partly due to good legal footwork from the 121 side, head-scratching fuckuppery from the council, and sheer apathy – at one point the council lawyer accepted an ‘undertaking’ that Crowbar would ‘leave the building’ (it changed its postal address but carried on as before) and the case was adjourned. However, in the 1981-85 period, the squatters claimed they had a verbal licence, or asked to pay rent (with a certain amount of crossed fingers…!), just to try to prolong the life of the place. Noone really thought it would last as long as it did. But these tentative negotiations over a possible licence or tenancy would do for us in the end…

In later years 121 had been often quite isolated from much of its surroundings, more so as the squatting scene that produced it declined into the 90s…

Since the 80s 121’s position had become in many ways more and more anomalous. When Brixton had been full of squatters, overflowing with alternative projects, 121 had been an important cog in this scene. By 1998 it was out on a limb; not that there weren’t still squatters in the area, but the strength of the eighties had been dissipated. The building had passed through several collectives, different groups with different agendas had introduced contrasting atmospheres. Although lots went on in the space, it was left behind from the social changes around it, and had little continuous involvement in community or social struggles since the Poll Tax, apart from resistance of anarcho-squatters around the 121 to their own evictions… some of us saw it declining, becoming an inward-looking social club for anarcho-punks. Not a bad thing in itself (if you like that sort of place), but irrelevant to the lives of most of the people living around it. It’s also worth pointing out that the streets around the old Frontline were increasingly dominated by the middle class that was taking over the area. You could sit there and watch people passing by, glancing at the shop, not even knowing what it was. The building was also in physical decline, the back wall was falling down, many repairs were too expensive to even contemplate. At times the physical decay and social isolation seemed like parallel metaphors for each other.

“The cafe nights could be great or dodgy depending who was in the kitchen. I remember one night when some crusty was serving. His hands were black! I think I gave it a swerve that night!”

The café had begun as a cheap communal meal, but evolved into a money-raising venture, cash for the bills, benefit meals for good causes… Hilariously, over the years, anarchist inflation took regular price of meals down from £3 in 1981 to 50p/pay whatever you want by 1999… We understand economics, see?

Its also true that in the early days the more class struggle/migrant oriented collective cooked meat regularly, though later it went veggie and then exclusively vegan. The food was variable, at best – some times excellent (is there truth in the rumour that Franco, later supremo of pizza chain Franco Manca, spun pizza in 121 in the early days?); other meals were inedible mush. For a long time veg was liberated from New Covent Garden market (in Nine Elms), from the skips for unsellable food – mostly it was fine, just a bit over ripe. Some people had little quality control however.

One incident relating to the skipping of veg at New Covent Garden – the security guards were always out to catch you, since taking food that has been thrown away still counts as stealing, breaking the capitalist ethos… Occasionally you’d get chased off; once or twice they’d call the police and you’d get nicked. one time out whole skipping crew was nicked on a Friday morning and held all day. In the spirit of the show must go on, some of us went down Brixton market, begged borrowed and skipped enough food for a passable meal, and put the cafe on anyway that evening. When the arrestees were let out, late in the afternoon – without charges – they were welcomed back not only with food and drink but a song written in their honour, a pisstake of an Irish rebel song about their brave attempt to liberate mouldy veg. A lovely evening in the end and tears of laughter. There were many such nights.

As well as days and nights where noone came. Or nights dealing with the nutters who were always attracted to free spaces, hard to deal with, damaged, or abusive.

All the debates and arguments – not just political differences but rows about the building’s upkeep. One problem with social or squatted centres is that you open them to be organising hubs for your actions, your movements, but alot of the time you end up working hard just to keep the space together, physically, pay for stuff, do building work. We learned how to plaster, do wiring, glazing, plumbing, rebuilt the kitchen, re-slated the roof; we could do little about the structural issues that were slowly causing the back wall to move away from the building… One image that stays with me is Irish Mike up to his knees in water in the basement, pumping out water that had flooded in from a burst pipe next door, two days before the ten-year party.

There was death and tragedy too. Mick Riddle died after falling down the stairs into the basement in February 1991, during a party to celebrate ten years of 121 as an anarchist space. The stairs were rickety and dangerous, but the coroner ruled that he had in fact collapsed due to alcohol poisoning and been in the wrong place. He died on the pavement as we waited for an ambulance.
Black Flag’s Leo Rosser killed himself… Veteran anarchist Albert Meltzer died… Irish Billy, who used to live upstairs at 121 for a while – whatever happened to him…? Others moved away, succumbed to drugs, cancer, suicide.

The building’s energy dipped and rose, and the atmosphere changed tack several times. Always volunteer-run, with a high turnover, unpaid, with people turning up then moving on… Periods of stability and strategic approach would give way to occasional chaotic change. From a serious class struggle collective in the early days, through more agit-prop arty folk, to anarcho-punk… Sometimes these influences co-existed uneasily, sometimes one group would dominate. This process accelerated as Brixton changed socially.

The centre hosted regular film showings, from the political to the purely entertaining (including a pirate showing of Terminator 2 before it was out in the UK); a food co-op where members could by cheap wholefoods, a Reiki massage parlour for a while (?!?). We helped to put on national events like Stop the City, international events, from Queeruption to the 1994 International Infoshops Meeting, through to the Anarchy on the UK ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ festival in 1994. This last brought a whole new scene of local squatters to the area, who took 121 in a punkier direction again. Anarcho-punk gigs began to dominate that building, spilling out into what was by now almost quiet residential area, which didn’t endear us to the neighbours. For some of us who had built up 121 to try to move out to other communities and become a base for local class struggle again, this led to arguments and tensions. Now it seems daft, as 121 was never going to evolve back into something it had been fifteen years earlier – the area just wasn’t like that any more. Those of us who were involved in what we saw as local community activity sometimes got pissed off with 121 and stormed out to do things elsewhere… Other squatted spaces like Cooltan arose and formed a much more broader link to local scenes, but that is a story for a another time…

1997-99 saw the revival of the long-abandoned attempt to evict the 121. The Council may have felt when it failed to turn up in Court in ’85 that moves on 121 were still too risky, with it being on Railton Road; or maybe they just forgot to set their alarms that day. It was the legal position then that twelve years occupation of a squat in continuity, unevicted, meant that the owners lost their title and you got it – or that was the basic case – in reality this ‘adverse occupation’ law was much more complex, and nuanced, and not as clearcut as we thought.

For years we had not really believed they would ever bother, or had forgotten they owned the building (not unheard of in other cases), or had lost their own papers… Frustratingly some of our legal papers were lost due to stupidity (you know who you are! But it’s all water under the bridge now…)

In January 1999, after some 18 months of legal to and fro, 121 went to court; we claimed 12 years adverse occupation. We lost. In 1983-5 the 121ers had claimed they had a licence from the Council – the right thing to do at the time, to stave off immediate threat – but it turned out to be a no-no if you go for adverse occupation to show any recognition of the owner’s right to the place. The Council had restarted proceedings just 2 weeks before the 12 years after our last communication with them in which we recognised their title to the building, just by asking for a deal. But hey ho. What could we do? Squats don’t last forever.

Funnily enough, the threat to evict 121 galvanised the energy around the place, and we made a spirited last stand, barricading the building, entering into a 24-7 occupation, and producing rainforest-fulls of lively propaganda, including a weekly newssheet size revival of the old South London Stress. When bailiffs were rumouredly on their way in early February, 100 people blocked the street and launched a mini-street party (some of us being involved in Reclaim the Streets paying off); till the cops turned up, and persuaded us they’d called them off. We promptly dismantled the barricades – but went on the offensive, invaded the Town Hall and were dragged out of Council Leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office. We held a couple of small street parties, with bands, sound systems, campfires…

We made some productive links with several other campaigns against council cuts, notably disabled users of the Centre for Independent Living, who had occupied the centre when the Council announced planes to close it. The Centre provided support for disabled people living independently; Lambeth Social services Committee decided to cut the service, (an alleged consultation meeting was rigged, then moved to a room without wheelchair access!) and so on February 1st 99 the users took over the space. They were supported by activists from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network; the occupation continued for several weeks… There were also campaigns against plans to close 5 libraries, and campaigners against the closing of several primary schools, playcentres, special schools…. The long-running Tenants Corner Advice Centre in Oval Mansions (Kennington Oval) was evicted (along with the rest of the building, squatted or licensed; after many years and several court cases everyone was forced out. The block lay empty for several years, it has now been renovated.)

In contrast with many weary and cold days spent in 121 in recent years things were actually fun. We were out causing trouble almost daily again… invading the Firkin pub (bugged by he chain with the connivance of the local police), holding a street Drink-In in defiance of the anti-Drinking bylaw, harassing the council, and the Queen too when she turned up for some daft school ceremony.

A 121 street party in Chaucer Road down the side of the building, 1999

A lot of energy got spent, maybe too much too soon. In the end the Council waited 6 months, till many of those involved were exhausted, and then at 6.30 in the morning on the 12th of August, 150 cops, some armed, with a helicopter fluttering overhead, broke in and evicted the few people staying there at that time… The end of 121. Bit of a damp squib. So many people had been forced to leave Brixton, our response was subdued. Maybe we just accepted the inevitable.

Some of the ex-121 crowd were later involved in squatting a disused Button factory in Hardess Street in Loughborough Junction, mainly for punk gigs… though some actions were also organised there around June 18th I think.

Much more could e written… and will be. Send us your memories! And your gripes… But remember that an end-of-terrace ex-laundry can turn into something amazing for a while…

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Dedicated to

Olive Morris,
Leo Rosser,
Gerald ‘Fiddler’ Farthing,
Jill Allott,
Nikki Campbell,
Asti Albrecht,
Maggie Marmot,
Mick Riddle
Albert Meltzer
Katy Watson. true Brixtonites and 121ers all

no longer with us, and we miss them all.

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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

Today in London riotous history, 1990: local anti-poll tax demo erupts, Brixton

Everyone knew it was going to go off…

As previously related, the introduction of the Poll Tax (officially disguised as the Community Charge.) in 1989-1990 enraged millions of people across the UK, as being a single flat-rate charge on everybody, based on the number of people living in a house rather than its estimated price, and not taking account of income or property ownership (as the rates system had), everyone would pay the same rate set by the local council, regardless of how rich they were or how much their property was worth. This gave the tory government fits of joy, as it would increase the burden of paying for Council services on the working class, and lightened the load for the better off, by thousands (millions in some cases).

Thatcher and co thought they would get away with this, after a decade in which they’d mashed up all working class opposition – steelworkers, miners, printers, etc. They were on a roll. The Poll Tax, they thought, would not only make them more supporters among the middle class, but also stick the knife into the leftwing Labour Councils they hated so much, forcing them to slash services, especially in inner cities… They clearly felt they would push the tax through whatever the opposition…

The introduction of the poll tax was widely unpopular from the outset, and increased when tax rates set by many local councils turned out to be much higher than initially predicted.

Huge campaigns sprang up against registering to pay, filling in forms, giving the local council any info etc., and then against payment. Thousands of local anti-poll tax groups or unions were set up. Opposition ranged from marches, occupations, resisting bailiffs seizing property for unpaid poll tax, to riots and filibustering the courts with endless arguments . Hundreds of people were jailed.

Community networks of members were set up to watch out for and resist bailiffs, and the operation became so successful that debt collecting firms in some areas went out of business. In Edinburgh local APTUs patrolled working class areas with cars and radios to watch for bailiffs, and in London some cab drivers fulfilled the same role. Bailiffs offices were often picketed and occupied, and in Scotland hundreds of people defended houses against the forced removal of goods by sheriffs.

The campaign for non-payment gained in strength through the early months of 1990, and eventually became the single most damaging reason for the government to continue with the poll tax. By August of 1990 one in five had yet to pay, with figures reaching up to 27% of people in London. 20 million people were summoned for non-payment. Many local authorities were faced with a crisis, and councils faced a deficit of £1.7 billion for the next year. Initial successes with non-payment campaigns led to several large demonstrations in cities across the country, including the famous disturbances that occurred in central London on March 31.

Here’s a first-hand account of the demonstration/mini-riot that took place in Brixton, South London, on 9th March 1990, written by a local anti-poll tax activist s few years later.

It’s worth bearing in mind that for two-three weeks every night seemed to bring news of another riot at another town hall; Hackney went up the night before Brixton, Southwark, Islington… the list went on…

Many people in Lambeth – still one of the Country’s poorest areas, with high unemployment and low pay –  simply wouldn’t be able to pay at all anyway; thousands swore blind they would never pay a penny.

Across the Borough about 20 odd anti-Poll Tax groups were set up. The ‘Leftwing’ Labour Council, made angry noises about refusing to co-operate with the Poll Tax; several councillors including leader of the Council Joan Twelves joined the all-Lambeth Anti-Poll Tax Federation, when it finally managed to lurch into existence after months of inter-trot/trot vs anarchist bickering. As happened all across the country, the divisions concerned fundamental differences in strategy and ways of organising: broadly speaking Labour campaigners thought you could fight through the Council and the TUC, the Socialist Workers Party was for stopping the Poll tax through workplace (ie council workers, ie NALGO) organisation, and that community or street groups were pointless; Militant was for building community groups but under their direct control and run top down by their activists; the anarchos and other non-aligned sensible types weren’t against trying to get NALGO members to strike against implementing the Tax (although sceptical of the likelihood of NALGO taking a strong position – from experience! Although in October 1989 Oval DSS workers struck for a week, in protest against being told to snoop on claimants for poll tax; this was part of a campaign of strikes across the UK) and had seen the shambles Left Councils like Lambeth made of fighting Central Government: we felt the best strategy was self-organised local groups run from the bottom by the local people themselves. As it happened the SWP flitted in and out of the anti-poll tax movement with all the attention span of a slightly dizzy gnat, depending on what other things were going on (“Non-registration is a damp squib, comrades, the Dockers Strike is the Big issue Now.”) Militant and the anarchists (who had been organising through 2 or 3 local Community Resistance groups in the Borough) fought constantly as the Milis tried to impose as much control over the campaign as they could. As 1990 dawned the moment when we would have to pay (or not) approached; the Council despite its soft left white noise was preparing to agree how much we would be charged… The tension rang in the air…

Here’s an account on burning poll tax bills in Brixton from around this time.

There were riots or angry demos at many if not most Town Halls around the country, in the space of a few weeks, as the local councils met to decide how much poll tax they’d be extorting from residents. Many of the protests in London ended in fighting with the cops. The night before the Lambeth demo Hackney had gone up, a huge battle spreading out from the Town Hall, with 60 arrests. You could go to a riot every night that week in London (many of us did!) There was an unreal atmosphere in the country, not like anything since. I guess like the riots of July ’81, people involved felt a sense of possibility, that the daily grind could be shaken and maybe overturned… It seemed believable to some of us that the strength of community resistance and the willingness to get stuck in were the start of a new era… We were naive maybe, but that’s how we felt.

There were about 3000 people at the rally outside the Town Hall. The council had tried to defuse the inevitable confrontation by letting quite a few protesters into the gallery to observe the ‘hard-left’ Labour councillors (currently running the Borough) faffing around, and several hundred in to watch proceedings on a large screen in the hall next door. (Watching a Lambeth Council meeting on TV is thought to have inspired the makers of Big Brother.) 100 pigs, many from other sties, were drafted in, as Scotland Yard’s public order monitoring unit T020 anticipated that there “could be trouble”… well duh.

Inside the council dithered, outside a large and vocal crowd sang songs, chanted, gossiped about where they’d been in the last few days… Southwark Town Hall… Hackney Town Hall… Islington Town Hall… A couple of lifesize effigies of Thatcher were hung from the bus stop in Acre Lane and burned to wild cheers. There was a band playing calypso (if I remember right!) and people were dancing on top of all the bus shelters (beats waiting for a number 37).

Speeches outside… blah blah same old lefty rhetoric mostly, till one of our local Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax group made a slightly inflammatory speech slagging off the Labour Party. Of course all the trotskyists whose existence was entirely parasitical off Labour started having a go at him.

Meanwhile 2 Special branch cops were wandering round in the crowd, recognised by someone present, whose house they’d raided previously! She spent much of the early evening following them round loudly announcing their identity to the crowd… Somehow they escaped a kicking, what were we thinking? (They showed up on other poll tax events that year.)

I can’t exactly remember how it kicked off… some pushing and shoving, people trying to pile into the tiny door to the Council chamber I think. The cops were on edge, not surprisingly, and started laying into people near the doors. So of course we started chucking stuff at them, many of us had brought a little something. Paint bombs first, then, bricks, bottles, bits of wood. The filth charged into the crowd and pushed us out of Acre Lane, into Brixton Road, there were quite a lot of us, 500 or so in one group. I think many people did go home at that point, and some got trapped the other side of police lines. There was some skirmishing in the high street, bobbies were hiding behind vans, then we marched through Electric Avenue, heading for the Cop Shop. There are not many feelings better than being in an angry crowd: running in to your mates, trying to swap jackets and stuff to fool their surveillance efforts, sharing drinks and fags and chanting… We didn’t quite get to the Cop Shop, they’d learned from ’85 (ie don’t let the mob besiege you in your own police station!) and made a stand at the corner, forcing us into Stockwell road. There was a running battle here, cops charging and retreating under a hail of missiles. We were joined by groups of kids from Stockwell Park Estate, some of them lobbed stuff down at the old bill from above. From somewhere a single panda car with 2 cops in it, driving right into the middle of the crowd at Stockwell Green, shouts of “turn it over!” and over it goes on to its side. With the cops in it. The looks on their faces – priceless.

There was a lull, people standing around laughing, I looked over and our Anti-Poll Tax group’s banner was hanging from the windows of the squat over the way. “Brixton/Clapham Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax” – you can say that again: here’s the community, and this is the resistance! (Later this image was used repeatedly on the telly.) The mounted cops came out and we melted out of Stockwell road. Some Trot or other was shouting “Lets march on Downing Street!” Yeah, lets not.

A couple of hundred of us got together and tried to go for the Town Hall again, but were beaten off. I think someone did start throwing petrol bombs at one point but they didn’t explode? Certainly there weren’t many mollies.

Word got out that the Council had set a budget but had postponed agreeing a rate of poll tax (they were still talking about something like £600 a head a year). So we get another crack at them in three weeks… Everyone ended up in the pubs. On a high.

27 people did get lifted on the night. And some in raids later I think. I seem to remember one or two did go down. Some “black community leaders” blamed all the trouble on “white outside agitators” AGAIN! Play another record that one’s scratched. Folk round here of course like everywhere were rabid about the poll tax, but as soon as many people saw a large mob of coppers they’d start pulling up the pavement. It was just part of the culture then.

A couple of weeks later, on March 27th, Lambeth Council met again to try and agree how high the Poll Tax was going to be.  Could Lambeth beat Haringey and set the highest in the country? For the thousand who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it was academic, just a matter of civic pride. Another mini-riot broke out, it was in some ways a carbon copy of the one two and a half weeks earlier, but smaller: marching through the market again, pushing and shoving. Not as much fun. The night was overshadowed for some of us by the death of a local anarchist comrade, Leo Rosser, one of the old 121 Bookshop/Black Flag crew, a few days before, in terrible circumstances. Shame he never lived to see Trafalgar Square go up, a few days later…

 

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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

Today in London racist policing history, 2001: Ricky Bishop killed by Brixton cops

On the afternoon of Thursday 22nd November 2001, 25-year old Ricky Bishop was driving through Brixton with a friend. The police stopped them on Dalyell Road (as part of ‘Operation Clean Sweep’) Ricky and his friend were taken to Brixton Police station. They supposedly volunteered to go along, though they were then handcuffed. There Ricky was attacked – the officers claiming that he had escaped his cuffs(?) – and was held down by cops, while he had a heart attack. He was still cuffed when he arrived in the Hospital.

It is alleged that while in detention, drugs were pushed into Ricky’s mouth and elaborate stories made up by the officers to justify the arrest and a violent assault of him.

Ricky’s mother was told by police that he was in King’s College Hospital, later that evening. She had to make her own way down to the hospital, and shortly afterwards she was told that her son had died.

None of the 8 cops present did anything to help, sending for a paramedic too late. None were suspended.

The 11 policemen involved in the killing of Ricky Bishop were PC Simon McDanial, PC Richard Atkins, PC Christopher Rees, PC Michael Lane, PC Daniel Wood, PC Richard Luke, PC Nicholas Wilson, PC Paul Gittins, PC Shane Molyneux, PC Christopher Davies, PC Mark Johnston. The family also ideintified & then Lambeth Borough Commander Brian Paddick as holding responsibility as being the man in charge.

There were numerous unanswered questions.  If Ricky had offered to go to the police station voluntarily and was not arrested, why was he handcuffed?… Ricky had cuts around his mouth and wrists, and injuries to his legs.  How did he get these injuries?  Why was there no medical attention provided at the police station for his injuries?  Why was Ricky searched in the interview room and not on his admission to the custody suite? Was Ricky handcuffed whilst on the way to the hospital?  What time was Ricky admitted to the hospital?  What was the reason for Ricky’s admission to hospital?

Ricky’s sister Rhonda said, “Two police officers held Ricky to the ground whilst he was having a heart attack, only then did they go and call for a paramedic.”  The family have never had an explanation as to why it took several hours for police to notify them of Ricky’ arrest and admission to hospital, and had grave concerns that the police issued a misleading press release before informing the family of its contents.

At an inquest into Ricky’s death, the Coroner concluded that he had died from “misadventure,” a verdict which exonerated the police and angered his family and supporters. They believe that the inquest was flawed as vital evidence was withheld by the Metropolitan Police.  The jury were only given a choice of three verdicts; death by misadventure, narrative, and an open verdict. The latter two are methods of arriving at a verdict without assigning blame to anyone.

None of the eight police officers involved in this death were suspended or prosecuted.

A small demonstration marched through the streets of the London suburb of Brixton on November 22 2003, to protest police racism and brutality. The demonstration took place on the second anniversary of the killing of Ricky Bishop, following the recent Inquest verdict.

“We are calling for the police officers that were involved to be charged,” organisers of the Brixton march said in the flyer publicising the action. “We are calling for an independent and external inquiry into Black deaths in custody.”

Protesters braved a pouring rain and marched through Brixton High Street to the location where Bishop had been stopped and arrested by the police on Nov. 22, 2001. Others joined the protest as campaigners drew bystanders to march towards the Brixton cop shop, where Bishop had died four hours after his arrest.

“We are here today to make everyone aware that we can fight for justice,” Doreen Bishop, Ricky Bishop’s mother, told protesters. “We need to build a movement to stop police brutality. If it takes the rest of my life that’s what I’ll do.”

Doreen Bishop, Ricky’s mother is still campaigning for a Public inquiry into his death 17 years later

Check out the campaign’s facebook page

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015